Edward Taylor is Grateful & So Am I

This week, I’ll put up a couple of posts with Edward Taylor’s poetry. This is possible because some scholars were willing to put in long hours. Don’t expect criticism here – just appreciation. I’ve known and studied under experts on him, but that was chance and a lifetime ago. I never became a scholar and am even less expert on Taylor; I haven’t read most of his growing body of poems and sermons. You may be drawn to read more, but he and his works are very much those of a 17th century Puritan. Still, if you find the large body resistible, you are likely to find a poem or two attractive – each semester I teach a few and never tire of them. And his body of work demonstrates the value of academic scholars – what we owe them for immersing themselves in another time and place, in puzzling out handwriting and explicating texts. It was under people who approached these works with respect that I (and my generation) were drawn into this discipline. We’re retiring now and it may be a bit late, but this is thanks to those mentors.

This blog and others often see academia as a house of cards. Few see it that way more than I. And many complain of the politicized and brittle approach to literature of the late twentieth century. Few see it that way more than I. But in the 1930s Thomas H. Johnson, going through the papers that Taylor’s grandson, Ezra Stiles, left at Yale, found a great body of work. That was the beginning – an edition of those poems. My gratitude for another critic is both personal – my fond memories of a harsh Nebraska March in 1971 when Charles Mignon was a sweet and gentle teacher of Emerson – and more abstract, I’m grateful that good man spent decades immersing himself in Puritan aesthetics and Puritan thinking to produce the two volumes of Taylor’s Upon the Types of the Old Testament. These were a family’s private treasure, brought to a later frontier – Nebraska. Mignon devoted himself to transcribing and publishing, giving the works a loving context a well-written introduction, and a series of articles that “open” them.

William Scheick was more acerbic than Mignon, but a semester later, in an Austin classroom, his enthusiasm for colonial literature was palpable. He applied that learning and love to Taylor’s poems in The Will and the Word. His 1974 book and Norman Grabo’s 1988 Twayne introduction remain insightful. (Though the thought that a 1988 critique of a writer who died in 1729 would not be “complete” because the primary works weren’t is always a surprise.) Both write well, analyze well, and help us understand the conventions – aesthetics and emblems – of the period. (By the way, Grabo taught at A&M when my husband was first hired, chairing the dissertation of my early business partner. He engendered her enthusiasm in the period.) Daniel Patterson’s critical edition of the poems is now available.

We see how a few writers in a small colony remain important 350 years later. I won’t defend administrative or critical theory excesses, self-indulgence or turf building, But I am defending the core mission of literature departments – to read, to teach, to explicate, to edit, to write. These men provided models of close reading and good writing, of a willingness to plumb depths in individual works. A sentimental or narcissisitic study of literature blocks empathy, but study takes us out of ourselves and immerses us in the writer’s world. Only then do we appreciate the artful unique expression, molded and structured by that time & place; only then can we understand the writer & the work, only then can they lead us. The unique is important but so, without sentimentality and narcissism, is our knowledge that what is true of them remains true of us.

6 thoughts on “Edward Taylor is Grateful & So Am I”

  1. Robert,

    I don’t think you have a bad point and it has always been my suspicion that too much money (or power) isn’t the good some think. I noticed Mignon dedicated the second volume to his sons, one of whom was named “Edward Taylor Mignon”, while the other was given his wife’s maiden name. That indicates that such long and general unremunerative labors have another impetus than money or power.

    We can look at Victorian scholarship and notice that Arnold was an inspector of schools, testing students and trying to keep up standards, even as as he was perhaps the most famous man of letters of his time. (Or that Williams was a doctor or that Stevens was an insurance executive.)

    The Victorians retained a strata with a strong sense of duty, a work ethic, but sufficient funds to indulge their studies. Indeed, such a man could go crazy and still be of immense importance to the scholarship of the OED. Or we can look at the middle ages, which weren’t dark in the cloisters. So, yes, some of this is likely to continue – and perhaps the most dedicated & worthy – if all grants were pulled. It would take longer and fewer would have the time, but projects would be assessed in a way that prioritized “meaningful to the scholar” and less “meaningful to the grant-giving entity.”

    If you are arguing that teachers who also do research shouldn’t be subsidized, then you must be arguing against land grant universities. The concept of such schools has always seemed to me one of Lincoln’s more brilliant moves – like the railroads that pulled this country together, these became dots that connected one state with another. I’m certainly sympathetic to Perry’s idea of the $10,000 education and would prefer tht my students saw themselves as paying as they go, sacrificing the immediate gain for the treasures of the mind – that might eliminate a lot of them and my job, but that’s okay, too.

    Just because colleges have lost their way, just because students have been encouraged to go into debt, just because college has been sold as a credentialing rather than learning experience, just because students see their years as students as living the middle class dream – and are encouraged to do so by college administrators – all that is true but that doesn’t mean college shouldn’t be available and be a learning experience – and that that learning experience isn’t important. That teachers are paid to teach (or at least not so heavily encouraged not to) and students to pay their own way (or at least not be so heavily encouraged not to) might not be a bad consequence of the end of this bubble I can agree.

    More of our graduate students in many fields are foreign – that says something bad about our school system from K-16, but it doesn’t mean that the collateral good of exposing those foreign students to American culture and English is a bad thing, either.

  2. Most of the literary greats (and other greats) of history earned their living in other ways. Certainly Vincent Van Gogh starved and his mother used his paintings to patch her chicken coop, but most of the rest did fairly well. Thomas Campion was a physician, as was Servetus (who discovered the pulmonary circulation) and Vesalius. Oliver Goldsmith and Keats were physicians, as well. Literature has a long list including Chekov and Conan Doyle. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr was very well known and, of course, his son became a supreme court justice. Somerset Maugham and William Carlos Williams may not be recognized as physicians but they were and earned their living that way, at least until Maugham became famous.

    In fact, most of early chemistry was developed by Physicians, and the rest by Monks like Albertus Magnus for whose teaching Thomas Aquinas walked from southern Italy to Paris.

    I would, if wishes were to be fulfilled, prefer to be a student at Johns Hopkins in 1895 where surgery in America was brought to the highest level before 1950 by men (and some women who were accepted at Johns Hopkins in the 19th century) who had no prospect of government support.

    Like Constantine’s support for the Catholic Church, I believe that science has been irreversibly corrupted by government support. I have had brief contact with the federal grant process and it convinced me to avoid it henceforth.

  3. Well, isn’t the point that teaching is one of the ways of supporting one’s self? I wanted to specifically honor people who had taught, marked up my papers, handed in grades, and generally fulfilled the duties of teaching, on all levels. I wasn’t defending NEA and NEH (though Gioia is, I suspect, more defensible than most – and closer to the land grant tradition). Gioia by the way preferred working in industry – I think it was General Foods – to being a writer in residence until he was able to support himself with his writing and since his sister was career military he saw his responsibility as extending where others might not have.

    Science is a whole other world – with much higher expenses to research and much more obviously profitable results of such reearch. It probably needs to be argued on totally other grounds.

  4. Both literature and science are dependent on people who do best by supporting themselves while they do literature and science as an avocation. Einstein is a famous example so I won’t belabor it. I have written a book about science history and Salk and Sabon did their best work in circumstances that were parsimonious at best. I have written a review of one of the biography of one of the most important men in biology. Max Perutz labored in near poverty and the imminent prospect of loss of his position until he was awarded the Nobel Prize. He founded the discipline of molecular biology. All that we credit in this field came from his lab.

  5. Tonight, sorting through papers (to give you a sense of the mess, I found a copy of our mortgage between a paper on teaching English and another on evolutionary theory). Still, here’s a review of Elizabeth Samet’s memoir of teaching English at West Point, the paper on teaching. This summer is the first one in a while I haven’t taught a classroom Am Lit course – usually I get some soldiers (and probably have one on-line, since he had to take his test late for a VA appointment). They are great students, respectful but more willing to argue – generally engaged. I’m not saying they have the intensity Samet finds – but these aren’t whole classes of them, either. Maybe this gives a glimpse of why I think teaching lit is useful (Michael your examples are more often of creative writers – and I’m not sure teaching lit helps them, though I’ll admit what we do is kind of parasitical so we feel guilty.) And I do feel like I’m leading my students to some kind of relation with their heritage.

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