Homo Scriblerus

by Frank Kermode | March 26, 2001

Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books
by H.J. Jackson
(Yale University Press, 324 pp., $27.95)

A certain Cambridge classics teacher named Walter Whiter suddenly became fairly famous when a peculiar book of his, A Specimen of a Commentary on Shakespeare, originally published and scorned in 1794, was rediscovered and for a while admired in the twentieth century. The brief vogue of the Specimen prompted some research into its author, so we know that Whiter was for some years the close friend of Richard Porson, the great Greek scholar. Porson would go into Whiter’s rooms, open a book, find a pen, and write notes in the margin. There is no indication that Whiter minded his doing so; presumably he thought that the comments of so great a scholar enhanced the value of the book that he defaced.

This is not the way we feel about the anonymous scribblers who, in defiance of repeated injunctions and severe but unenforceable penalties, insert their observations in the margins of library books. I once found, in a university library, a copy of Wordsworth’s Prelude in which the editor, in a rare flight of fancy, remarked in his preface that he detected “celestial ichor” running through the poem’s veins. A reader had corrected this (in ink) to read “celestial choir,” a conjecture lacking the plausibility of those by Porson—not an enhancement, but a defacement.

I happened on the Whiter anecdote at the moment when H.J. Jackson’s book arrived on my desk. She is a distinguished student and editor of Coleridge, who not only wrote thousands of marginalia but actually gave the word currency. But Coleridge’s marginalia are a special case: he cultivated the genre as a professional. Jackson fell to thinking about the subject more generally, and then to exploring it with remarkable persistence. The practice of such annotation has a long history. The purpose of the present book is to describe that history, to classify and to exemplify different types of marginalia, and to urge librarians, bibliographers, booksellers and general readers to take a keener interest in them.

Obviously there are a great many marginalia that are of no interest at all, and may be a source of annoyance—such as the library book that I have just mentioned, or those that we nowadays find everywhere, ruthlessly highlighted by students and perhaps bearing a few words of commendation or disagreement, or a few vengeful insults directed at teachers. Sometimes there may be only an amazed exclamation mark (perhaps a series of them), or a skeptical query, or a vertical line beside a paragraph. But at the other end of the scale are the likes of Walpole inscribing his privileged information in the margins, or Gibbon marking up Herodotus, or Keats glossing Milton.

Even those instances of the great commenting on the great are not always unproblematic. Are the comments really that interesting, or do we find them so simply because they are made by famous hands? Jackson has examined a huge collection of marginalia, by unknown readers as well as celebrities, and can find reasons for thinking much of it worth the trouble. In the course of explaining how the practice caught on, and how its aims altered with the passage of time, she has a lot to say about the way people used to read, and about how they read now.

 

Jackson is not much interested in workaday marginal marks by reviewers (nor are her publishers, who leave little room for them), but she is willing to consider examples that are really no more than extensions of a claim to ownership. The signature may be augmented, for example, as by Stephen Dedalus in his geography textbook:

Stephen Dedalus
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
Sallins
County Kildare
Ireland
Europe
The World
The Universe

On the opposite page another hand, that of Stephen’s schoolfellow Fleming, inscribed a poem:

Stephen Dedalus is my name,
Ireland is my nation.
Clongowes is my dwellingplace
And heaven my expectation.

(This addition, unlike Porson’s, was presumably made without the owner’s consent.)

Some scribblers will explain why and where the book was bought, and issue admonitions to borrowers or others into whose hands it may fall: “If this book should chance to roam, box its ears and send it home” to so-and-so, or some more grown-up request of that kind. More serious annotators will gloss words in the text that they have had to look up. Some make a private index of passages that have attracted their own remarks, and may record a more ample critical judgment on the blank paper of a flyleaf. These are likely to be annotators of the scrupulous type, and use ink only if they own the book and pencil if they do not own it (or if, as was sometimes Coleridge’s problem, the paper is so absorbent that ink forms an illegible blur).

Jackson seems surprised that such private indexes can sometimes appear at the beginning rather than at the end of a book, but this is only another form of the atavism that she recognizes as characteristic of marginalia generally. These manuscript additions descend from ancient practice: the marginal annotation of texts in pre-printing ages, which was then imitated by the earliest printers. The index at the front was a common feature of such books. Iago had such indexes in mind when he called Cassio’s courtesy “an index and obscure prologue to the history of lust and foul thoughts.”

The practice had changed by the time of Swift, who derided scholars who make a show of learning by getting “a thorough insight into the index, by which the whole book is governed and turned, like a fish by the tail.” Fashions in learned publication went on evolving, as when the footnote began to replace the printed marginal comment; and when the endnote later ousted the expensively double-set footnote, to the great detriment of scholarship. And now that modern printing can provide footnotes on the page with little extra expense, we may hope for the end of endnotes, though Jackson’s publishers do not seem to have made this great leap forward, or backward.

The point is that all these meta-textual interventions, including marginalia, have a long and continuous history. According to Jackson, the manuscript marginal note reached its apogee in the eighteenth century. Before that there were plenty of printed marginalia, and owners who did not have bookplates inscribed their names, sometimes with other information; but personal responses or arguments were hard to find. Some years ago a copy of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene was found with inked marginal comments, in which the writer had tried to interpret figures in the poem as allegorical allusions to Elizabethan notables, but was disappointingly less good at this game than later scholars, though the notes do say something about the way contemporaries went about reading the poem. Jackson plausibly claims that there is little of interest in this line before 1700.

The eighteenth century is another matter. Books were cheaper, and the growth of the practice of annotation probably coincides with a large increase in private ownership. The notes, as Jackson says, became at once more private and more public. Their authors used them for purposes of self-expression, but quite expected them to be read by eyes other than their own. They particularly solicited the attention of friends, who would sympathize with the personal tone while also constituting a small admiring public.

Reading was then, and remained until the early twentieth century, a more social activity than it is now. Women would read to a feminine family group, while their auditors worked at embroidery or the like. And communication might be kept up at a distance, with books given as presents and containing poems (“lines written on a blank leaf” and so on). Jackson quotes several such titles, giving the prize for long-windedness to the title of a poem by Robert Burns: “Written on the Blank Leaf of a Copy of the Last Edition of My Poems, Presented to the Lady Whom, in so Many Fictitious Reveries of Passion, but with the Most Ardent Sentiments of Real Friendship, I Have so often Sung under the Name of Chloris.”

Not all manuscript additions were so cordial. Sometimes they could be critical or even vengeful (“innumerable blunders and misconceptions ... unparalleled insolence and stupidity”), though on these occasions the annotator may just be talking to himself or herself, like Blake in his mostly rude notes on Reynolds’s Discourses, written long after that author was dead. This may be the case even when the reader appears to be addressing the author directly, as when John Horne Tooke writes in a boring book, “This, Bishop, is really extremely interesting.”

The tendency on the part of solitary readers to express contempt, disagreement, or approval when all they can do is nag a pile of paper is psychologically curious. In extreme forms, it can be obsessional. Fanatical orderliness may be thought a benevolent form of obsession, as in the case of systematic notation of the kind Gladstone went in for: a plan that provided him with serious aids to memory and self-improvement. But there are wilder varieties. Jackson, who enjoys herself throughout (writing, as it were, extensive marginalia on her collection of marginalia), calls Richard Clark, who “extra-illustrated” his own book on Handel, and adorned the books of others with crazed commentary, a “nutter,” surely a most unprofessorial expression.

“Extra-illustration”—or “grangerizing”—in the manner of Clark was a practice liable to induce mania. The second of those terms derives from James Granger, an eighteenth-century cleric who made catalogues of portraits, which the purchaser could adorn with reproductions of the portraits. This is not strictly the same kind of intervention as writing marginalia, and Jackson disapproves of the practice, for the inserts are often cut out of other books. But disapproval of bookish vandalism does not destroy her interest in grangerizing, or reduce her anecdotal zest. She tells how Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, grangerized the autobiography of the actor Colley Cibber, first inlaying its octavo pages in folios and then binding in the queen’s eclectic selection of prints, here affectionately described.

 

Jackson also offers extended studies of marginalists—of Coleridge, for example, and of a reader who annotated Boswell’s Life of Johnson. The second of these cases is the more interesting, not just because the case of Coleridge is better known, but because Jackson, indefatigable researcher that she is (few would want to examine 386 copies of Boswell’s book!), has found out who the man was. Hester Lynch Piozzi annotated two copies of Boswell’s Life, drawing on her long but ill-fated friendship with Johnson, and actually had her notes published separately. Keats’s friend Leigh Hunt also put in some hard work on his copy. But “Scriblerus,” as Jackson’s favorite called himself, did far more. His copy of Boswell, now in the British Library in London, contains copious notes on spacious margins, the notes being rather hostile in tone. They occur on almost every page of the book, and were written at intervals through the 1790s.

The samples of Scriblerus that we have here fall a bit short of fascinating, even when he is scolding Boswell (“Bozzy, Thou art an absolute Idiot to print this”), but he comes through as a man of quality, self-assurance, and considerable learning; and he appears to have been a friend of members of Johnson’s circle, of Burke, Goldsmith, Burney, Garrick, and Reynolds. He seems to have been about the same age as Johnson. Craftily delaying her revelation, Jackson introduces some manuscripts, also in the British Library, that are in the same hand as the annotations to Boswell, and finally she unveils Scriblerus as Fulke Greville—not the famous Elizabethan poet and biographer of Philip Sidney, but a less gifted descendant whose identity Jackson has now revealed. Greville sent his annotated volumes to Boswell, who, not surprisingly, ignored them.

Another marginalist accorded a profile in Jackson’s book is T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King and of a less famous but marvelous book called The Goshawk, which describes how he trained a hawk the very hard way, with the aid of an Elizabethan treatise on the subject, being unaware that more modern and less exacting methods were available. White was educated at Cambridge, and Jackson seems to think that this circumstance, along with the coldness of his mother, explains his “troubled sexuality”; she describes Cambridge as a university in which “homosexuality (for men) was accepted, if not actually mandatory.” (Here I inserted two exclamation points in the margin of my copy.)

White annotated C.J. Jung’s Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (and wrote a private index), arguing with Jung’s text and making glancing allusions to Freud and Adler. When Jung outlines Freud’s theory of dreams, White marks the passage “Read this repeatedly.” A longer note, consigned to the back of the book, is an extraordinary experiment in free association, apparently alluding to White’s own Oedipus complex. “I tried to die of dysentery. Wine. Dis-entry. De sentry. To die of dis-entry. Failure to enter.” And so on. It seems that Jung and Freud prompted White to free-associate rather than to comment directly. Reading them had simply got him going, and all this tormented verbiage just happened to occur while he had the book at hand. The passage drifts weirdly towards Joyce at the end, and Jackson takes a lot of trouble over its interpretation, but the main effect of it on me was slightly to increase my respect for Finnegans Wake.

 

My respect for Jackson is measureless. Only rarely do the margins of her own book bear such comments as “Surely not!” and “Non sequitur?” One such disagreement I will allow myself: she says of Coleridge that “since he never acquired professional qualifications for the church or the university and struggled all his life to earn a living as a writer and occasional lecturer, he had plenty of time and incentive to read widely.” Well-known professors, with access to generous foundations, long vacations, highly favorable leave arrangements, and good pension prospects are, it is here suggested, far more pressed for time to read than a freelance literary journalist who, as the author of the remark admits, has to struggle all his life to earn a living. As far as I know, it never occurred to Coleridge to apply for a job at Cambridge, his old university. Cambridge was somnolently going through a bad patch at the time, and maybe that was his reason; or perhaps he thought that the place would trouble his sexuality, if it had not already done so. Certainly something did.

Who are the best marginalists? It is a question that Jackson naturally considers. She takes a good look at Horace Walpole, writing marginal memoranda for himself and “corrigenda for posterity,” but she concludes that his notes are not “personally revealing,” and his main aim is to enhance his own reputation as a know-it-all. He is witty, sometimes funny, sometimes malicious, but one is “suspicious of his motives” as a marginalist. He cannot be thought a prince among annotators.

There are certain conditions that must be met by anybody hoping to be considered for that honor. “The author and the annotator might be a good fit intellectually,” Jackson rules, “... or they might be contemporaries with comparable social backgrounds; or they might be experts in the same field. The common features themselves are less important than the ends that common features are expected to achieve, namely a competent and fair reading, or what Coleridge called `genial’ criticism—criticism written in the spirit of the original.” Who answers these requirements? Gibbon, perhaps. His notes, like Keats’s, exhibit what is here called “creative symbiosis”: both parties, author and commentator, are changed by the encounter.

Jackson also mentions for praise Northrop Frye’s notes on Bunyan and notes in two copies of Marianne Moore’s Selected Poems (1935), though the ones that she adduces are not impressive, being mostly unargued commendations. She is a little worried that the most admired marginalia should be by such famous commentators, and to compensate for this elitism her book is crammed with instances of the work of less illustrious persons. Yet these examples, she suggests, are the merest sampling. If we all made an effort, we could greatly improve our knowledge of marginalia, and go deeper into the social and psychological conditions that favor their production. In this way we could contribute to the fashionable academic preoccupation with the history of reading. The qualities for which we should be looking are intelligibility, relevance, honesty, “certified expertise,” information that will help a later reader to make better judgments, and a good “symbiotic” match between the two parties.

 

In an afterword, Jackson pleads for a reformation in our ways of dealing with marginalia. Access to them must be facilitated. They must be zealously preserved. Catalogues should indicate their presence. Different types of marginalia should be registered, and bibliographers are urged not to neglect them. Given a choice, one should always use an annotated copy. Thought should be given to the question of how these glosses can best be published, with special care taken not to give them the appearance of taking precedence over the original text. Publishers also should bear in mind the needs of annotators, though Jackson here adds that small margins do not deter them—a remark that surely deserves a marginal query itself. We should share our notes with friends, in the best eighteenth-century manner. If conventional books are going out, never mind: software is available for annotating their electronic successors.

Jackson thinks of almost everything. Perhaps some foundation will fund an enormous scholarly program on marginalia, with a team under her efficient direction. Or perhaps it can be done better by hard-reading freelance reviewers and lecturers. Whatever the future holds, we can say with confidence that Jackson’s Marginalia has done for marginalia what Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote did for footnotes. Henceforth we should all take a more informed interest in the scribbles that we find inside many battered books. The scribbles may be riches.

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