Academic memoirs

Carolyne Larrington (November 11) speaks up for the kind of memoir that enables literary academics “to step out from behind the lectern; to educate, confess, reminisce and make themselves heard as passionate, feeling subjects”. She hails it as a “new subgenre”, a “new strain of life-writing”, and links it to autobiographies “that chart how reading can transform … children, helping them to escape difficult circumstances”, instancing a “Cornish working-class”. writer”: not AL Rowse but Natasha Carthew, whose Undercurrent will be published next year.

I look forward to that book, and am glad of the reviewer’s other recommendations, but it seems worth asking how new all this really is. Rowse’s A Cornish Childhood It came out in 1942 and is still in print. In all his idiosyncrasy he was, of course, a literary scholar, as was his mentor Arthur Quiller-Couch, for more than thirty years King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge, whose works also include an autobiography (Memories and Opinions, 1944). So do those of Quiller-Couch’s successor Frank Kermode (Not Entitled1995).

So well established is the tradition, in fact, that exactly twenty years before being announced in your pages it was satirized by Sharon O’Dair, a professor of English at Alabama. In a fierce, substantial essay, “What About Me?” (The Baffler, November 2002). O’Dair traced at least part of its origins to a “professors’ writing support group” begun in the 1980s at Duke University. The authors included Alice Kaplan, Jane Tompkins, Cathy N. Davidson and Marianna Torgovnick, “each experimenting with memoir after having produced significant, and often highly theoretical, scholarly work”. (Some of these memoirists “don’t just write their memoirs; they write essays justifying, and thus promoting, the writing of their memoirs”: she gives details.) TLS Readers will doubtless be able to supply examples much older than O’Dair’s or mine, but there’s a striking resemblance between what Larrington applauds and what O’Dair made fun of: “It was once more to the typewriter, girls, but this time, forget theory and scholarship: ‘write with feeling!'”.

Jeremy Treglown
London SW4

State of disunion

I am glad that Paul Larkin (Letters, November 11) mentions the Good Friday Agreement. That agreement requires parity of esteem between the two communities in Northern Ireland – the Nationalist and the Unionist. Brendan O’Leary’s book, which I reviewed (October 28), is one-sided. It is devoid of understanding or sympathy for Unionist aspirations and fails to show how these could be accommodated in a united republican Ireland, outside the Commonwealth, given that the monarchy remains important to many Unionists. The author’s comment that partition was an “avoidable error”, rather than the outcome of sincere differences of allegiance between Nationalists and Unionists, is further evidence of lack of understanding.

I suggested that some Unionists might well not accommodate themselves peacefully to a united Ireland, especially one governed by Sinn Féin. Paul Larkin points out that Unionists have worked with Sinn Féin in the Northern Ireland Assembly. They are, of course, required to do so under the Good Friday Agreement. However, the main parties in Ireland – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – were unwilling to govern with Sinn Féin after the 2020 elections. The Unionists are unlikely to prove more accommodating, especially as the leader of Sinn Féin, Mary Lou McDonald, has never apologized for speaking in 2003 at the commemoration of Sean Russell, a former chief of staff of the IRA and collaborator with Nazi Germany.

Vernon Bogdanor
London N2

Alan Rickman

Reviewing Madly, Deeply: The Alan Rickman diaries (October 21), Hal Jensen concluded: “These supplementary diaries are a pure delight from start to unforgivably early finish”. As the book’s editor, I would concur, wouldn’t I? Curiously, though, Jensen appears not to appreciate the editor’s role in creating such delight. Rather, he would prefer to know what decisions were made in reducing Rickman’s original manuscript of more than a million words to a manageable length. For the sake of further argument, let’s just say there were about 900,000 of them.

Jensen would also like to know whether Rickman would have “tempered” or “edited” entries if he had been around to supervise publication (Letters, November 11). “What’s more,” adds Jensen, “it is at least worth wondering whether a man so conscientious and painstaking about his work as Rickman would have wanted his rough schedule-plus-comments to go to press without rewriting.” It might be worth Jensen’s wondering, but I’d rather stick with what we know, which is that no one knows what Rickman’s intentions were. All else is speculation. What we do know, however, is that the diaries remained intact at his death, which suggests he felt them worth preserving. It was then left to his widow to decide what to do with them.

I accept Jensen’s point about there being “hardly any reflective sequences” about acting in the diaries. I would argue, however, that Madly, deeply is a revealing and honest insight into what it was like to be an actor of Rickman’s ability, commitment and stature. It is, in essence, his life. For example, writing in 1978, at a formative point in his career, Rickman reflected: “a still more ruthless determination to be an ACTOR, not anybody’s puppet, or at most walkie-talkie doll. I am ultimately the servant only of the play (that, however, implies generosity to fellow actors and willing listener to directors) not of someone’s distorted view of my offstage persona.

Alan Taylor
Bowden, Scottish Borders

Supported editors

Georgina Wilson’s account of nineteenth- and twentieth-century female editors of Shakespeare (October 7) mentions “husband and wife collaborations” in which female labor is belittled. But there is also the question of sisterly and brotherly combined editorial effort in which the woman’s part has been deliberately erased. In 1807 The Family Shakespeare was published, and the anonymous editor explained that “twenty of the most unexceptionable of Shakespeare’s plays are here selected, in which not a single line is added, but from which I have endeavored to remove everything that could give just offense to the religious and virtuous.” mind.” This, of course, was the now notorious “bowdlerized” Shakespeare. When a second, more comprehensive edition appeared in ten volumes in 1818, the title page proclaimed it as being the work of Thomas Bowdler, Esq. The contribution of Bowdler’s sister, Henrietta Maria Bowdler, was suppressed. It was Henrietta Maria, rather than Thomas, who had instigated the entire project and undertook most of the work on the first edition. Her name was removed in order to conceal the fact that an unmarried woman clearly knew far more than she should have done about Elizabethan and Jacobean sexual impropriety: a curious instance of the censor being herself censored. The Bowdlers’ Shakespeare ran to some fifty editions in the nineteenth century, which would make Henrietta Maria Bowdler by far the most important “lady editor” of the age, though not for reasons that would be unequivocally celebrated today.

Jonathan Sawday
Saint LouisUniversity

Omar Pound

Welcome as the information about TS Eliot’s charity to Ezra Pound’s son is, Chris Jones’ “Help from Uncle Possum” (September 16) requires some comment. The essay quotes a letter from the headmaster of Charterhouse – where the boy was bullied and scorned by his fellow students as the offspring of “America’s Lord Haw-Haw” – that says Ezra had seen his son only three or four times by 1941. The neglect was even greater, however: as A. David Moody – the best of Pound’s biographers – reports, Omar met his father “only once, or possibly twice, until after 1945”.

Furthermore, the unhappy boy was not biologically Ezra’s. It has been suggested that his conception may have been an act of retaliation by his mother, Dorothy Pound, for the birth of Mary, the daughter of Ezra and his mistress Olga Rudge. In the event Ezra signed the birth certificate in Paris when Omar was born and registered as a US citizen under the name Omar Shakespeare Pound, after Omar Khayyam and the maiden name of Dorothy, who was the daughter of Yeats’s lover Olivia Shakespeare; Ezra, who presumably chose the given names, was said to have remarked, “note the crescendo.”

Jones also quotes Omar at Charterhouse “fondly” remembering prewar visits by his mother and a trip with her, but she was generally – again to quote Moody – “a rather absent parent”, and indeed for many years, both before Charterhouse and after Omar Left the school in 1943, she farmed him out to a variety of custodians, including her mother, until he joined the US Army.

As Jones reports, Omar matriculated at Hamilton College, Ezra’s alma mater, in 1947; He graduated in 1951, six years before I began teaching at the Department of English there. I know from conversations with him that in Hamilton he finally found a very happy home, and his contributions to the college, including a stream of gifts to the library concerning his father, continued throughout his life. The assertion by Omar in the letter cited by Jones that he discovered his father to be “one of the heroes of Hamilton” is, however, completely at variance with my experience. Those who taught or otherwise mentored Omar at the college greatly admired Ezra’s poetry and other contributions to literature, but to my knowledge none of them – some had served in the war – regarded his fascism and antisemitism with anything but the disgust I shared. When I taught some of Ezra’s poetry in my survey of English literature from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf, I do not recall ever encountering a student who had so much as heard the poet’s name before.

Austin Briggs
Hamilton College, Clinton, NY


Edmund Gordon usefully hits on the low points of Blurb Your Enthusiasm in his review (October 28), but does not address key questions about the genre. First, it is frequently said that blurbs don’t sell books. Blurbing is a vanity enterprise. Second, and related, getting Barack Obama or Bono to grace your book jacket won’t do anything to push the book, but it might just repel the anticipated reader. No one believes that these worthies ever read the text. Some minion wrote the copy. Better instead to issue a “blurbatorium”, a measure from which a lot of repeated blurbers would benefit.

Leonard Benardo
Brooklyn NY

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