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Burn This Book!

By Benjamin Winterhalter

In 1592, the Chinese philosopher Li Zhi wrote this preface:

I desire to burn this book. I say that I must burn and discard it. I cannot keep it… As for those who find my work grates upon their ears, they most certainly will succeed in killing me…

Li Zhi titled his manuscript, fittingly enough, A Book to Burn. The title can be read in many ways: as a challenge, a warning, a self-fulfilling prophecy, or even a bit of black humor. He followed it up with two sequels: Another Book to Burn and A Book to Hide. What drove him to publish a manuscript so controversial that he was certain it would bring about his death?

Li Zhi’s exasperation with the corruption, greed, and superficiality of the powerbrokers in his society fueled his writing. As he wrote, “if the ancient sages had not built up indignation they wouldn’t have written anything. To write something without indignation, that would be like shivering when you’re not cold, or groaning when you’re not sick. Even if they had done that, who would pay attention?”

Li Zhi never gave himself over fully to any one ideology. He called himself a Confucian, but was endlessly critical of Confucianism as he saw it practiced in the world around him. Even when he joined a Buddhist monastery and shaved his head like a monk, he let his beard grow long and refused to stop eating meat. You could call him a contrarian or a crank, or you could say that he was one of those people whose uncompromising principles make it impossible to live with the world as it is.

Nor did Li Zhi show much interest in creating an internally consistent philosophy. In fact, A Book to Burn is extravagantly and even joyfully self-contradictory. Perhaps, as some scholars have argued, that was his way of forcing readers to exercise their own judgement and form their own opinions. He didn’t want to become one of those dusty experts whose words people parroted without real understanding.

This was a radical position, because Li Zhi lived in a time when cultural status and success were deeply tied to “toeing the line” of acceptable beliefs. To receive a high-ranking position in the bureaucracy, young men were required to pass the famously difficult civil service exams. Success depended on regurgitating orthodox opinions. There was even a scandal in 1595, when it was revealed that students had passed the exams by copying example essays word-for-word from their study manuals. As a youth, Li Zhi passed the first level of the civil service examinations, but he refused to sit for the second, thus taking himself out of the running for any truly prestigious positions. This was perhaps the first sign of the rebellious streak that would come to define his life and work.

Despite his top-notch classical education, Li Zhi valued popular entertainment as well as the classics, and the vernacular tongue as well as the refined language of scholars. He followed the doctrine of Wang Yangming, believing that anyone had the potential to become a sage. He argued that women had equal intellectual powers to men, and were only deprived the opportunity to develop them. He even took on a female disciple, Mei Danran—an extremely shocking choice at the time.

Li Zhi challenged the orthodox belief, laid out in the classic text the Doctrine of the Mean, that the relationship between ruler and subject was the fundamental basis of social order. Instead, he argued for friendship as the most important social relationship. Indeed, Li Zhi’s friendships were central to the development of his philosophy. A Book to Burn started as a bundle of letters circulated among Li Zhi’s friends, and, in its preface, he justifies his choice to publish such a dangerous volume with the hope that “if one of my essays speaks to the heart of another, then perhaps I may find somebody who understands me!”

Yet the letters also record the strain that Li Zhi’s uncompromising principles put on his friends. He believed in harshly criticizing those friends who strayed from what he saw as right. As a result, many of his relationships suffered. As Rivi Handler-Spitz, Pauline Lee, and Haun Saussy write in the introduction to their translation of Li Zhi’s selected writings: “A Book to Burn reports the recurrent bewilderment and loneliness Li experienced as one by one his friends grew tired of his relentless faultfinding and abandoned him.”

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On the other hand, those of his friends who refused to compromise their ideals often suffered for it. In 1579, one of Li Zhi’s role models, the philosopher He Xinyin, died in prison after being arrested for his radical ideas. Li Zhi must have known that the same fate was coming to him, sooner or later. In 1602, the Wanli emperor ordered Li Zhi arrested. He died in prison that same year, and all copies of A Book to Burn were ordered to be thrown on the bonfire, fulfilling the promise of the title.

Yet the official prohibitions only increased the text’s cachet. Zhu Guozhen wrote that almost every member of the literati kept a treasured copy of A Book to Burn hidden like a precious rarity. In fact, Li Zhi’s name became such a selling point that booksellers slapped his name on entirely fabricated manuscripts. Wang Benke wrote in a preface to one of his books, “Within the four seas there is no one who does not read this gentleman’s writings; there is no one who does not desire to read them all; they read them without stopping, and some even read pirated editions.” Not bad at all.

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T.S. Eliot

By The Editors

T.S. Eliot, born on September 26th, 1888, was considered one of the twentieth century’s major poets—and not just because he wrote the poems that would become the libretto for the musical Cats. He also wrote acclaimed essays, plays, and poems like The Wasteland and Four Quartets, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.

His famous “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” can be read in its entirety here, thanks to Poetry Magazine:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

Download the PDF to read the rest of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”


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The Question of Race in Beowulf

By Amy Shearn

Most readers of Beowulf understand it as a white, male hero story—tellingly, it’s named for the hero, not the monster—who slays a monster and the monster’s mother. Grendel, the ghastly uninvited guest, kills King Hrothgar’s men at a feast in Heorot. Beowulf, a warrior, lands in Hrothgar’s kingdom and kills Grendel but then must contend with Grendel’s mother who comes to enact revenge for her son’s murder. Years later, Beowulf deals with a dragon who is devastating his kingdom and dies while he and his thane, Wiglaf, are slaying the dragon. Crucially, Grendel is never clearly described, but is named a “grim demon,” “god-cursed brute,” a “prowler through the dark,” a part of “Cain’s clan.”

Indeed, Beowulf is a story about monsters, race, and political violence. Yet critics have always read it through the white gaze and a preserve of white English heritage. The foundational article on Beowulf and monsters is J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Yes, before and while writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was an Oxford medieval professor who interpreted Beowulf for a white English audience. He uses Grendel and the dragon to discuss an aesthetic, non-politicized, close reading of monsters, asking critics to read it as a poem, a work of linguistic art:

Yet it is in fact written in a language that after many centuries has still essential kinship with our own, it was made in this land, and moves in our northern world beneath our northern sky, and for those who are native to that tongue and land, it must ever call with a profound appeal—until the dragon comes.

Beowulf—which is written in Old English—was produced over a millennium ago and is set in Denmark. Learning Old English is on par with learning a foreign language. Thus Tolkien’s view on which bodies, fluent in this “native” English tongue, can read Beowulf, also offers a window into the politics of who gets to and how to read and write about the medieval past.

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Tolkien’s investment in whiteness does not just apply to his ideal readers of medieval literature. It also extends to the ideal medieval literature scholars. At the 2018 Belle da Costa Greene conference, Kathy Lavezzo highlighted Tolkien’s role in shutting the Jamaican-born, Black British academic Stuart Hall out of medieval studies. Hall’s autobiography, Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands, describes a white South African gatekeeper. Tolkien was the University of Oxford Merton professor of English Language and Literature when Hall was a Rhodes scholar in the 1950s. Hall explains how he almost became a medieval literature scholar: “I loved some of the poetry—Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Wanderer, The Seafarer—and at one point I planned to do graduate work on Langland’s Piers Plowman.” However, according to Lavezzo, it was Tolkien who intervened in these plans: “But when I tried to apply contemporary literary criticism to these texts, my ascetic South African language professor told me in a pained tone that this was not the point of the exercise.”

This clashes with Tolkien’s friendlier image that has permeated popular culture, thanks to The Lord of the Rings. Through Tolkien’s white critical gaze, Beowulf as an epic for white English people has formed the backbone of the poem’s scholarship. To this day, there has never been a black scholar of Anglo-Saxon studies who has published on Beowulf. Mary Rambaran-Olm has reported on the many instances of black and non-white scholars being shut out of medieval studies. She recently explained at the Race Before Race: Race and Periodization symposium what Tolkien did to Hall in light of her own decision to step down as second vice president of the field’s main academic society, citing incidents of white supremacy and gatekeeping. As a result of these incidents, studying Beowulf has long been a privilege reserved for white scholars.

Ironically, Tolkien’s advocacy for a Northern, “native,” and white ideal readership contrasts with his own personal and familial histories. He was born and raised in South Africa. Though Tolkien’s biographers have claimed that his African upbringing scarcely influenced him, scholarly critics have pointed out the structural racism in his creative work, particularly in The Lord of the RingsAdditionally, he wrote an entire philological series, “Sigelwara Land” and “Sigelwara Land (continued),” on the Old English word for “Ethiopia.” In this series, he explicates the connections between Sigelwara Land and monsters by flattening the categories of black Ethiopians, devils, and dragons. He writes:

The learned placed dragons and marvelous gems in Ethiopia, and credited the people with strange habits, and strange foods, not to mention contiguity with the Anthropophagi. As it has come down to us the word is used in translation (the accuracy of which cannot be determined) of Ethiopia, as a vaguely conceived geographical term, or else in passages descriptive of devils, the details of which may owe something to vulgar tradition, but are not necessarily in any case old. They are of a mediaeval kind, and paralleled elsewhere. Ethiopia was hot and its people black. That Hell was similar in both respect would occur to many.

Tolkien’s work of empirical philology is a form of racialized confirmation bias that strips Ethiopia of any kind of connection to the marvels of the East, gems, or even his own fixation on dragons. He highlights Sigelwara as a term related to black skin and its connections to devils and hell, framing Ethiopians within the same category as “monsters.” He has no qualms about consistently connecting the Ethiopians to the “sons of Ham,” and thus the biblical descendants of Cain, linking medieval Ethiopia with the justification for chattel black slavery. In fact, no part of the etymology (nor any part of medieval discussions of Ethiopia) discusses slavery. Tolkien would have read Beowulf’s Grendel, who is linked to Cain, as a black man:

Grendel was that grim creature called, the ill-famed haunter of the marches of the land, who kept the moors, the fastness of the fens, and, unhappy one, inhabited long while the troll-kind’s home; for the Maker had proscribed him with the race of Cain.

Tolkien’s articles on Ethiopia and on Beowulf, all published in the 1930s, reveal that Tolkien likely interpreted Grendel as a black man connected to a biblical justification for transatlantic chattel slavery. Thus, Grendel was raced within the logics of Tolkien’s white racist gazer. However, his philological method is still seen as a non-politicized and non-personal form of “empirical” scholarship. His interest in solidifying white Englishness and English identity—as a chain of links from the premodern medieval past to contemporary racial identities—is a project that extended into multiple scholarly areas.

Over the last several years, Tolkien’s most circulated political stance has been his resistance to fascism as displayed in letters he wrote to a German publisher. He may have abhorred fascism and antisemitism, but he upheld the English empire’s white supremacy. He held racialized beliefs against Africans and other members of the English black diaspora.


Black scholars have been systematically shut out of Old English literature. If there is no critical mass of black intellectuals, writers, and poets who can talk back to the early English literary corpus and the large-looming white supremacist gatekeepers, then Toni Morrison’s Beowulf essay might well be the first piece to do so. Because she writes about Beowulf, race, and how to read beyond the white gaze, her essay speaks back not only to Beowulf  but to the English literary scholarship that has left Anglo-Saxon Studies a space of continued white supremacist scholarship.

In Toni Morrison’s 2019 collection, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations, we get the first revision of who should read Beowulf and how race matters. In her essay, “Grendel and His Mother,” she explains:

Delving into literature is neither escape nor surefire route to comfort. It has been a constant, sometimes violent, always provocative engagement with the contemporary world, the issues of the society we live in… As I tell it you may be reminded of the events and rhetoric and actions of many current militarized struggles and violent upheavals.

As a black feminist reader, Morrison examines Beowulf as political, current, for any reader. Indeed, she opens by explaining that literary criticism is always performed through the lens of its moment, urging her readers to “discover in the lines of association I am making with a medieval sensibility and a modern one a fertile ground on which we can appraise our contemporary world.” Morrison’s Beowulf interpretation highlights what other critics, following Tolkien’s lead, have deemed marginal. She decenters the white male hero, focusing instead on the racialized, politicized, and gendered figures of Grendel and his mother, who in Tolkien’s read would have been black. In his article “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” his white male gaze concentrates on what these two “monsters” can do for Beowulf’s development as the white male hero of Germanic epic. Morrison, on the other hand, is interested in Grendel and his mother as raced and marginal figures with interiority, psyche, context, and emotion.

In Morrison’s interviews with Bill Moyers, Charlie Rose, and The Paris Review, she explains her literary method when she unpacks nineteenth-century American literature—especially Faulkner, Twain, Hemingway, and Poe—and how white writers and critics hide blackness and race. Similarly, in Morrison’s discussion about Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl, she exposes the power dynamics of whiteness in Cather’s novel. The novel describes the complicated relationship between a white and a black woman in which Cather’s white gaze forces not just unspeakable violence onto the black woman but also erases her name, context, and point of view. Similarly, Tolkien is not interested in Grendel or his mother’s racialized contexts, emotions, and reasons. He writes with the white gaze—Grendel and his mother are racialized props that help explain Beowulf’s conflicts, contexts, emotions, and reasons. Morrison’s sentiments about nineteenth-century American literature apply to white supremacist Anglo-Saxon Studies: “The insanity of racism… you are there hunting this [race] thing that is nowhere to be found and yet makes all the difference.”

Morrison analyzes Beowulf through Grendel’s racialized gaze. She points out Grendel’s lack of back story:

But what seemed never to trouble or worry them was who was Grendel and why had he placed them on his menu? …The question does not surface for a simple reason: evil has no father. It is preternatural and exists without explanation. Grendel’s actions are dictated by his nature; the nature of an alien mind—an inhuman drift… But Grendel escapes these reasons: no one had attacked or offended him; no one had tried to invade his home or displace him from his territory; no one had stolen from him or visited any wrath upon him. Obviously he was neither defending himself nor seeking vengeance. In fact, no one knew who he was.

Morrison asks readers to dwell on Grendel beyond good versus evil binaries. She centers the marginal characters in Beowulf, who have not been given space and life in the poem itself. She forces us to rethink Grendel’s mother and Beowulf’s vengeance, writing:

Beowulf swims through demon-laden waters, is captured, and, entering the mother’s lair, weaponless, is forced to use his bare hands… With her own weapon he cuts off her head, and then the head of Grendel’s corpse. A curious thing happens then: the Victim’s blood melts the sword… The conventional reading is that the fiends’ blood is so foul it melts steel, but the image of Beowulf standing there with a mother’s head in one hand and a useless hilt in the other encourages more layered interpretations. One being that perhaps violence against violence—regardless of good and evil, right and wrong—is itself so foul the sword of vengeance collapses in exhaustion or shame.

Morrison’s discussion of Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and Beowulf is about violence and how it undoes all potential motivations, including vengeance. The final tableau of Beowulf holding both the blood-covered sword of vengeance and Grendel’s mother’s head is about the corrosiveness of violence. For Morrisonthe corrosive violence that eats through the sword of vengeance is that of whiteness.

Morrison goes further to unpack Beowulf through the work of contemporary writers. She explains:

One challenge to the necessary but narrow expectations of this heroic narrative comes from a contemporary writer, the late John Gardner, in his novel, titled Grendel… The novel poses the question that the epic does not: Who is Grendel? The author asks us to enter his mind and test the assumption that evil is flagrantly unintelligible, wanton, and undecipherable.

Specifically, she discusses Gardner’s rethinking of Grendel’s interiority. She writes that Gardner tries to “penetrate the interior life—emotional, cognizant—of incarnate evil.” For Morrison, the poem’s most salient interpretation comes from reading it politically, cogently, and rigorously. She writes:

In this country… we are being asked to both recoil from violence and to embrace it; to waver between winning at all costs and caring for our neighbor; between the fear of the strange and the comfort of the familiar; between the blood feud of the Scandinavians and the monster’s yearning for nurture and community.

In Morrison’s analysis, Grendel has developed from being a murderous guest to Hrothgar’s Hall who kills for no reason, to becoming the central focus. This passage asks us to think about why Grendel would do what he did. Morrison understands him as dispossessed; his “dilemma is also ours.” She situates Grendel as kith and kin to her imagined critical reading audience—black women.

Morrison concludes with a meditation on complicity, inaction, and the politics of contemporary late fascism and democracy:

…language—informed, shaped, reasoned—will become the hand that stays crisis and gives creative, constructive conflict air to breathe, startling our lives and rippling our intellect. I know that democracy is worth fighting for. I know that fascism is not. To win the former intelligent struggle is needed. To win the latter nothing is required. You only have to cooperate, be silent, agree, and obey until the blood of Grendel’s mother annihilates her own weapon and the victor’s as well.

In other words, we can reread that scene as a statement about fascist violence and its self-destroying and gendered toxicity. Morrison has made reading Beowulf raced, gendered, political; she has envisioned its interpretation through the centrality of a black feminist reading audience where politics matter and “democracy is worth fighting for.”

As Tolkien’s intellectual grandchild (my advisor was his student), I do not think it is accidental that Morrison’s critical voice reframes Beowulf for the racialized, political now. Tolkien’s deliberate shut out of Stuart Hall means that we can only speculate about Hall as a critic of Beowulf, and we know that Anglo-Saxon scholarship continues to shut out black and minority scholars. With Morrison, finally, I believe we can put Tolkien’s “Monsters and Critics” to bed and read Beowulf anew.

The post The Question of Race in <em>Beowulf</em> appeared first on JSTOR Daily.

Censorship Leaves Us in the Dark

By Aaisha Haykal

In 1982, the American Library Association established Banned Books Week in response to the increase in challenges to books in libraries, classrooms, and school libraries.

The Reasons for Censoring

Of course, censorship and challenging creative thought did not begin in the 1980s. The earliest form of censorship was book burning, carried out in order to solidify governmental power, erase history, and prevent the spread of ideas.

Dr. Whitney Strub tackles the latter in “Black and White and Banned All Over: Race, Censorship, and Obscenity in Postwar Memphis.” According to Strub, the Board of Censors and the Memphis city government worked to censor films and media that they considered inappropriate. Ultimately, the films that they censored included scenes featuring a mixing of Black and White characters. There was a particular focus on regulating images of real or imagined intimate relations between Black men and White women, a trope that is a legacy of Reconstruction. The censors felt that the message of these films was one of “social equality” that challenged normative values. The intent was that by censoring these images, the Black community in Memphis would not get the wrong idea about their “place” in society.

Books, film, and art are commonly banned or challenged in American society because they are sexually explicit. However, as Strub notes, historically people use sex as a code for race. It is easier or more politically correct to claim that you oppose a work of art because it is sexually explicit, than to object to how it portrays race. A prime example of this comes from the challenges of Beloved and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou in schools and libraries across the country. All three of these works deal with issues relating to racism and have a sexual component. Nevertheless, they make a larger argument about the role and treatment of girls and women in American society.

The Societal Impact of Censorship

Attempts to remove texts like these limit students’ ability to engage with subject matter that will help them survive in society and understand what is happening in their own lives and the lives of others. Tonya Perry explores the impact in “Taking Time to Reflect on Censorship: Warriors, Wanderers, and Magicians.” She notes that there are three roles an educator can play: warrior (who teaches just the facts), wanderer (who encourages questioning and interpreting experiences), and magician (where learning meets action and transformation). The magician educator will have material that addresses subject matter such as sexual harassment, sexuality, racism, and sexism, and demonstrates to students how they can put this knowledge into action. Thus, students become producers as opposed to being consumers of knowledge.

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According to Perry, those who censor in an attempt to “protect” students are actually doing them a disservice by not providing them the language and tools to communicate. Furthermore, it disproportionately impacts the students who come from underrepresented communities. Censorship signifies that their stories and histories are not valuable or important enough to be studied. As Strub notes, the act of censoring puts attention on the action of the challenge rather than addressing the societal issues that are facing American communities. In other words: censorship is a dangerous distraction.

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The Filipino Novel That Reimagined Neocolonial Gender

By Jessica Jacolbe

One of the most frequently taught novels about the Philippines is Jessica Hagedorn’s 1990 Dogeaters. The novel takes place in the Philippines, a former colony of the United States, in the 1950s. Income inequality is extreme. Political turmoil churns as leftists rise up to challenge the ruling dictator. And in Hagedorn’s fictionalized iteration, the lives of three families of various classes become entangled in revealing ways.

Specifically, Hagedorn focuses on the women living in midcentury Manila, breaking down the ways in which neocolonialism can impact gender. In “Masquerade, Hysteria, and Neocolonial Femininity in Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters,” Asian American literature scholar Juliana Chang finds that there are two forms of ambivalent femininity in the novel: masquerade and hysteria. While psychoanalytic theory has described these forms of femininity as operating under American and Western bourgeois family and closed patriarchal systems, Chang posits that the forms are also relevant in a former colony like the Philippines.

By this theory, masquerade is “a performance of femininity that masks feminine claims to power and covers over other contradictions of patriarchy.” This is exemplified by both the commodified and privileged female characters throughout the novel. The character of Zenaida, a mother whose labor is taken for granted, becomes a symbol of exploitation. Zenaida feels that she is only a surplus laborer; fittingly, she drowns at the end of the novel.

The novel takes place in a time of political turmoil. Hagedorn prominently features the First Lady, rather than the male head of state, as the political face of the country. Chang notes that this privileged figure is another example of “masquerade femininity” and spectacle. Hagedorn’s descriptions of how the First Lady must behave emphasize the pressures of women to be feminine in ways that are acceptable to the patriarchy, down to the grace with which she must wipe her tears.

The hysteric’s role, on the other hand, is “both to arouse and irritate paternal desire.” According to Chang, a character exemplifying hysteria is Baby Alcaran, the daughter of the powerful businessman, Severo Alcaran, and his wife, Isabel. Hagedorn makes a clear distinction between the mother and daughter. The mother is a symbol of upper class femininity. Baby, on the other hand, is often described as having physical traits and characteristics “like a man.” Baby sweats, chews her nails, has “flat breasts” and wide hips. These descriptions refuse the patriarchal normative standard and “insist on its contradictions.”

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According to Hagedorn, the neocolonialist Philippines held a heteronormative standard that ignored the possibilities of queer and female subjects. The structure of global capital, and the commodification with which human lives and labor are treated in the Americanized colony, only enforce these dominant systems. By representing diverse characters in Dogeaters, Hagedorn offers examples of the contradictory nature of neocolonialism—these characters are people who are not welcomed by the dominant systems, and yet they exist, living and loving in the world of the novel.

Hagedorn’s novel does not rely on tropes, but rather questions how those tropes came to exist. In the end, with its multiplicity of female and queer characters, Dogeaters presents an alternate narrative for the Filipino woman.

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The Dubious Art of the Dad Joke

By Chi Luu

What’s brown and sticky?

A stick!

Maybe you’ve already heard this hoary old chestnut, not even a joke so much as a bunch of words, weighed down with the cares of the world, that once had a joke vaguely waved over it. Resolving the riddle requires not just a sneaky act of linguistics, but also the subversion of an entire genre of similar worn-out jokes, making it not just a terrible joke, but also terribly clever (well, let’s not go too far). For that reason it’s still a favorite of small children, linguistics undergrads… and of course, dads everywhere.

Here’s another told to me recently. A man comes up to the widow at the funeral of his old friend and says “Mind if I say a word?” She nods. The man clears his throat and says gently “Plethora.” The wife smiles sadly and replies “Thanks—that means a lot.” Cue the groans.

Ah yes, dad jokes. We all know the kind, where a dad joke walks into a bar… and doubles up in pain due to the obvious and enthusiastic wordplay. But it’s everyone else who groans. Take the worst joke known to humanity and surely somehow, somewhere out there in the world, some dad will be telling it as if it’s the funniest thing in the world to a long-suffering audience.

Are Dad Jokes Universal?

Bad jokes have come to be strongly associated with middle-aged men with children. Though it’s mostly since 2014 that the mildly pejorative term “dad jokes” really caught the attention of the general public enough to enter dictionaries, the idea of an uncool father regaling his kids with corny jokes seems to be widely relatable to lots of people. And when they’re so bad they’re good, these otherwise ridiculous jokes have sometimes become perversely popular and shared by more than just the dads of the world.

The popularity of cringeworthy dad jokes brings up so many questions. There are more ways to convey humor than you can shake a stick at, many of them clever, witty, original, and undeniably funny. So why is it the most canned, corny, formulaic, brown and sticky jokes that have become so popular? Why do people associate bad jokes with dads—and is this even fair?

While all cultures make jokes and share humor in some way, it’s unclear whether or not the dad joke is really universal. There are certainly counterparts in other languages. In Japanese, oyaji (old man) gyagu (gag) are essentially dad jokes that are met with a blank stare from younger folk.

Choi Jinsook examines the increasingly popular ajae (middle aged man) jokes in Korean, such as in television comedy shows in which sorely distressed interns are forced to laugh at the bad jokes of their bosses in order to keep their jobs. A typical ajae riddle: 비가 1시간 동안 내리면? 추적 60(Translation: “What do you call it when it rains for an hour?” “In-depth 60 Minutes,” is the homophonic punchline that uses the title of a popular Korean TV program, which could also mean “60 minutes of drizzle.” I guess you had to be there.) Obviously, as Choi points out, you’d need an understanding of Korean pop culture and language to really get the joke. But like dad jokes in English, they don’t “require skillful delivery style and can be repeated endlessly” by anyone, thanks to their simplicity, unlike other kinds of verbal arts, puns, and wordplay.

The ways dad jokes differ from other jokes and indeed other forms of humor can be telling. (Humor researchers caution us most earnestly that if we dare to dissect why a joke is even funny, it’ll take all the humor out of it. But since dad jokes are mostly not very funny anyway, I think we can take a chance).

What Makes a Joke Funny?

On the face of it we may think of jokes as fun and games, a way to make others laugh from delight and surprise. Humor has been shown to bring people closer socially and relieve the stress of negative situations. Jokes have an undeniable power to reveal truths and create a rapport.

Then again, Freud famously argued that jokes were a socially acceptable form of hostility and aggression. Successful joke telling can form a bond between the teller and the audience, but sometimes they are banded together against the butt of the joke. It turns out the social forces that drive our use of jokes, while they may improve our moods, aren’t always a laughing matter.

Topics that are usually too inappropriate to discuss in certain polite circles can be comedy gold to others: people falling and hurting themselves; people’s personal traits such as weight, height, hair color, or ethnicities; even taboo or sexual subjects. Jokes can reinforce conservative, conventional views of what’s considered normal.”The racist can safely broach a taboo subject by making a nasty remark cloaked in humorthat is, to use humor as a testing device,” notes Peter Farb. The listener can show whether they find it acceptable by laughing, or not.

At the same time jokes and black humor can be a way people can cope with horrific events, enjoyed precisely because they’re so bad and offensive. In the aftermath of the Challenger explosion in 1986, Elliott Oring describes how a tasteless joke cycle spread quickly across the country:

Why didn’t they put showers aboard the Challenger? Because they knew everyone would wash up on shore.

It’s both disconcerting and revealing, what we as an audience can find funny.

What makes a thing funny? At its core, humor seems to be all about incongruity. Comic situations set up a context where something is marked or out of place. This oddness, far different to what we were led to expect or what we blithely assume is normal, is what makes things funny. The joke par excellence has to be cleverly original, yet not too clever that no one can get it. Telling a good joke needs a delicate balance.

Successful jokes, especially when new to the listener, can increase the social status of the teller in the hierarchy of a group, allowing them control over the social interaction. If you’re a good comedian, people are going to give you more opportunities to tell jokes. The performance of joke telling actually usurps the normal turn-taking customs of conversation by reserving the right to speak and forcing listeners to play along with the format of the joke (for example in a knock-knock joke or riddle). For the time of the joke, it’s an exercise in defining a reality that is “fiercely conservative,” according to some researchers, maintaining our conventional views of the world by laughing at what’s different.

So the stakes can be high in joke-telling, especially if the teller fails to deliver. People regularly signal not only when they’re about to tell a joke, in case it’s been heard before, but offer up excuses for why the joke might fail to dissociate themselves from the joke. Failure to land a joke successfully, or failure to “get” the joke (and be accused of the dire crime of not having a sense of humor), even getting the joke too easily when the subject might be inappropriate or taboo, means you can be in danger of losing face. Who would have thought that telling a joke could be so fraught with social pitfalls?

The Joy of the Bad Joke

Humor researchers don’t always agree, but one thing seems clear. So-called “dad jokes” take what we know about joking and turn it upside down—and not just because they’re horrendously bad. Dad jokes are a kind of anti-joke, different from other ways of joking in their performance, even formulaic jokes. Like self-deprecatingly joking about a personal flaw before your bullies do, dad jokes seem to court failure, presenting themselves as deliberately bad, deliberately uncool, deliberately anti-humor. No special kind of comedic performance or timing is needed—so anyone can tell a dad joke. The jokes aren’t new, they’re the easiest jokes to understand, and no one can possibly fail at getting them. A listener is meant to groan at what is obviously a bad joke… yet if they do laugh, all the better.

Dad jokes play with incongruity largely through linguistics and wordplay, rather than subject matter. The much-maligned pun is a mainstay of the dad joke. Puns, bad or good, have long fascinated researchers for their playful ability to tell a micro mystery, with its red herring clues in plain sight. A piece of string is kicked out of a bar, disguises itself and walks back in. “Hey, weren’t you that piece of string who was in here before?” says the barman. “No, I’m a frayed knot!” Through a trick of linguistics, words cleverly disguised like other words because of the way they sound or their different semantic senses can lead us in the wrong direction of meaning resolution, before we “get it.” While puns can be clever, the language play found in dad jokes is often excruciatingly bad, obvious, and trite. And yet, in their exuberance, they work in some way.

Dad jokes may often build on the templates and expectations of other well-worn jokes in a kind of meta-humor, and then deliberately undercut them as an anti-joke for comedy value. I still remember my grade six teacher’s often repeated (by himself) masterpiece, a limerick that went:

There once was a snake called Jake
Who wanted to be as thin as a rake.
He was so fat
And because of that
He exercised and got quite thin.

As Choi shows when discussing ajae jokes, the popular culture around uncool Korean dad jokes allows for different views of masculinity, moving from a strictly authoritarian figure to someone who would playfully make jokes (even bad ones). There’s perhaps a parallel in English. No longer distant, traditional patriarchal father figures, dads can use jokes to bond and interact with their children, using simple humor that is most often appreciated by children earlier on in their development. Children begin to absorb the system of language by playing with language, through the enjoyment of jokes, puns, tongue twisters, schoolyard rhymes and the like.

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Not only do dad jokes overlap with the kinds of jokes and language games children learn to enjoy, they actively encourage and develop a linguistic curiosity and understanding in children who are becoming gradually more aware of the world around them. But as much as small children undeniably enjoy their fathers’ jokes, they’re no more delighted than the tellers of the jokes themselves. The enjoyment perhaps is more in the telling of it, even when accompanied by a chorus of unappreciative (and inevitable) groans. For a time, the parental jokester has the floor and the kids are listening.

So is it really only dads that tell dad jokes? Studies claim that men seem to prefer formulaic joking as a way to differentiate themselves while women tend to share funny stories cooperatively with each other, a form of humor that is based on intimacy and solidarity. Formulaic jokes draw on social knowledge that a wider audience can appreciate while humor based on intimate knowledge is understood only by those that have a relationship with each other.

The accusation often levied in the past, notably from linguist Robin Lakoff, that women “have no sense of humor” and can’t tell jokes or get them, often ignores the fact that humor studies may be biased towards overtly male forms of humor, such as aggressive jokes that are often hostile or sexual in content, while a more cooperative kind of humor or gentler wordplay is not always considered valid. What Dawn T. Robinson and Lynn Smith-Lovin found in their study of humor and group dynamics was that men did joke a lot more in general, because successful joking (and interruption) increases social status and differentiation. Women actually joked much more, in general, when no men were present to interrupt them.

So it seems jokes are really for anyone with an interest in linguistic silliness. If you think otherwise, well, perhaps your mom can interest you in a punchline.

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William Blake, Radical Abolitionist

By Catherine Halley

Along the Caribbean coast of Suriname, all of the brutalities of eighteenth century empire existed in cruel abundance. From the genocide of the natives to the millions of enslaved Africans who labored in sugar-fields for first the English and then the Dutch, Suriname provides a sobering understanding of colonialism’s twin legacies of tobacco and terror, sugar and slavery. No contemporary text better illustrates slavery’s cruelty than the Scottish-Dutch soldier John Gabriel Stedman’s 1796 The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Suriname.

Selling Stedman’s book alongside pamphlets by Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Mary Wollstonecraft, its printer Joseph Johnson knew that the narrative’s power lay in images as well as words. One illustration depicts a young man naked but for a loin-cloth, still alive with unblinking eyes, hung from a hook which is roped around a bloody exposed rib. A scattering of bones and skulls litters the base of the gallows, as if at Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified. Johnson understood that conflating this lynching with the crucifixion was necessary, and enlisted the aid of an illustrator and poet named William Blake.

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Blake was a radical who, in his 1809 poem “Milton,” would emphatically declare: “Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age!” The rare figure who is equally influential in literature and art, Blake is the ecstatic of Romanticism who extoled freedom, with Morris Eaves enthusing in the Huntington Library Quarterly that the poet “continues even now to be the sign of something new about to happen.” First known primarily for his art, Blake’s verse was rediscovered in the late nineteenth century, and he has remained a counter-cultural icon.

An advocate of both the American and French revolutions, Blake was the prophet of rebellion who could sing:

In every cry of ever Man,
In ever infant’s cry of fear,
In ever voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

His abolitionism was a given, but his understanding of emancipation extended in even more radical directions than other Enlightenment thinkers whose rationality Blake found oppressive, intoning that “Prisons are built with stones of law.” Where the Enlightenment promoted rationality, Blake embraced mysticism; if the philosophes celebrated science, then Blake advocated visionary ecstasy.

Such was a view that Blake presented of himself, naming names when he wrote:

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau…

You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

Modernity, Blake believed, was defined by a wicked trinity of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke – incidentally the same trio that Thomas Jefferson valorized as intellectual heroes. Such a confrontational position would seem to configure Blake as a revanchist. Nancy Morrow writes in Early American Literature that the Enlightenment is often seen as a “philosophical movement that unequivocally advocated universal human liberty and political self-determination,” and yet the Enlightenment mainstream often advocated for inhumanity, such as when Locke wrote in the 1669 Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina that “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves.”

By contrast, Blake was influenced by non-conformist religious sects from the well-known Quakers and the Baptists, to the exotic Muggletonians and Swedenborgians, which compelled him to reject slavery as an abject horror. Morrow emphasizes that “major sources of arguments against slavery during the Enlightenment” such as the Quakers “cannot be considered a true expression of the spirit of Enlightenment philosophy.” As the Age of Reason once again becomes a cultural flashpoint, it behooves us to examine what the Enlightenment was, and how its discontents offer an alternate vision.

Morrow writes that the literature of the eighteenth century demonstrates that the “dictates of reason, logic, balance, order and compromise were ineffectual tools for writers who may have wanted to forge an abolitionist ideology.” This was certainly the case for Stedman, who advocated for gradual reform rather than abolition, barely grappling with his own role in the institution of slavery. Despite this, Mario Klarer writes in New Literary History that Stedman’s narrative “ranks among the most important and influential humanitarian texts of the late eighteenth… century,” becoming a touchstone for the abolitionists, and a crucial source for Blake.

The historians Gert Oostindie and Inge Klinkers explain in Decolonizing the Caribbean: Dutch Policies in a Comparative Perspective that by the late eighteenth century in Suriname “the native people had almost completely died out” and that “slaves constituted more than ninety percent of the population.” These are staggering numbers that dwarf similar populations in the United States. Stedman had joined a Dutch army deployed to combat rebelling enslaved Africans, but his book made clear the nature of his service.

Stedman recounts stories such as that of a woman drowning her child to prevent his enslavement, for which she was punished with 200 lashes, or the suicide of a young man who preferred death to flogging. Gruesome scenes which Blake depicts, such as an executioner mutilating an enslaved man: “having not with a hatchet chopped off his left hand, next took up a heavy crow or bar, with which blow after blow he broke to shivers every bone in his body, till the splinters, blood and marrow flew about the field. But the prisoner never uttered a groan.”

If Stedman had ambiguous positions on such evil, the illustrator of his book did not, attacking slavery as both economic and spiritual exploitation. Blake was able to connect his beliefs to the tangible nightmares of bondage. Suriname functioned as a body of evidence for the poet’s positions. As David Erdman argued in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, both Blake’s verse and artwork illustrated “modes of cruelty and prejudice which he wished to make known to the hearts of his contemporaries.”

Between 1792 and 1794 Blake produced sixteen images for Johnson, all done with “more than his usual care,” as Erdman reports, recycling several as illustrations for his Visions of the Daughters of Albion, with Erdman describing that poem as a counterpart to the “parliamentary and editorial debates of 1789-93 on the bill to abolish the British slave trade.”

Songs of Innocence and of Experience, “The Little Black Boy” via Wikimedia Commons

Not Blake’s first foray into the controversy around emancipation, as his 1787 lyric “The Little Black Boy” coincided with the “early phase of… [an abolition] campaign in which several artists and writers were enlisted,” as Erdman writes. While Erdman argues that Visions of the Daughters of Albion has slavery as its central theme, the hermetic enthusiasms typical of Blake can make that message difficult to interpret. By contrast, “The Little Black Boy,” from his collection Songs of Innocence and Experience seems deceptively simple. Containing the only unambiguously African characters in Blake’s corpus, the poem presents a black boy narrating his mother’s message about the fundamental equality of all people to his white compatriot.

The narrator prophecies a coming moment, both revolutionary and millennial, when “out from the grove my love & care, / And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.” For contemporary readers of the poem, however, there is something embarrassing about Blake’s language:

I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light

It centers Western chauvinism as much as the equality of humanity. Such language repeats, where “black bodies and this sun-burnt face / Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove” and where, with the coming millennium the black boy shall shade the white boy from the “heat till he can bear… And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair, / And be like him and he will then love me.”

As problematic as this is, Erdman argued that Blake was anti-racist, writing that his “engravings, with a force of expression absent from the others, emphasize the dignity” of his African characters. Writing several decades later, David Bindman claimed in Huntington Library Quarterly that Blake, exemplary though he may have been, couldn’t help but be constrained by his era, that he was “unable to free himself—no more than anyone else at the time—from the complex and often contradictory web of ancient and modern beliefs that had settled around Africa.” To focus on the literal language is a red herring. Blake engaged a radical empathy, expressing something about colonialism’s violence that is as psychic as it is physical.

Blake’s narrator is a child, processing trauma while being forced to use the language of his oppressors. The narrator’s promise to the white boy shouldn’t be read as literal, as the possibilities of radical equality are hard to imagine, not least of all because the system under which he lives makes it hard to imagine. It’s a fallacy to assume that what Blake is speaking of is assimilationist, that we’re to believe that the black boy will be transformed into a white boy, just as it would be an error to confuse the archetypal significance of those colors with physical reality. Rather, the kernel of the poem is the narrator’s mother saying: “And we are put on earth a little space, /That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”

Reading “The Black Boy” as simply the racist projection of a guilty white liberal doesn’t do justice to its subtle message. This is a lyric about what the constraints of racism does to both oppressed and oppressor, the ways in which ingrained prejudice alters perceptions, and how it limits the anarchic potential of divinity. In both the unearned sense of superiority of the white boy and the undeserved sense of inferiority from the black boy, we approach a subtle understanding of that utopian yearning for when we might “round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.”

Bindman notes that the “white boy adopts a position of supplication that would have evoked unmistakably… the famous emblem entitled ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother?’” Crafted by Josiah Wedgewood in 1786, this famous image depicted an African in chains pleading that question. The enslaved man, meek and deferential, is begging for a freedom that is naturally his right. Bindman claims that “The Black Boy” actually subverts the chauvinism of Wedgewood. When the black boy speaks of his partner by saying “I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear, / To lean in joy upon our fathers knee,” it’s whiteness that must bow its head in supplication, begging not for freedom, but for forgiveness.

Eaves writes that for Blake the “codes are simply too complex and cryptic—or too ambiguous and contradictory—to be cracked by straightforward references to big public categories.” Blake was not anti-Enlightenment so much as he offered an “alternate Enlightenment,” one that owed more to the religious dissenters than to Locke. While thinkers like Locke dwelled in the fallacies of pseudo-scientific bigotry, Blake was able to construct a vigorous denunciation of both slavery and racism. Marrow writes that the failure “to resolve the problem of slavery is perhaps a failure of this ‘Moderate Enlightenment,’” where an idolatry of what we assume rationality to be lends itself to inhumane conclusions. Blake’s reasoning was different, drawing not from pragmatism, but poetry; not from rationality, but prophecy—and that makes all the difference.

Such an alternate Enlightenment, which sees rights as being an issue of acknowledging the transcendent fixed within our hearts is a message of some use today. Blake offers a radical vision, where we are not slaves, nor consumers, nor products, where we are more than even just citizens—we are human. We are sisters and brothers.

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Walt Whitman, America’s Phrenologist

By Matthew Wills

Walt Whitman is known as “America’s poet” and the “father of free verse,” but few know that in addition to poetry and politics, he was obsessed with phrenology. According to the nineteenth-century “science of mind” known as phrenology, the mind/brain was divided into different faculties which controlled different aspects of personality. These different faculties and thus one’s personality were thought to be revealed by the shape of the head. A bump on the skull showed a well-developed phrenological attribute. A well-rounded head, therefore, meant a well-rounded personality.

“Bumpology” was a common nickname for this popular and influential pseudoscience, which would be parodied by Poe, Twain, Melville, and others…but not Walt Whitman. He was so pro-phrenology that in 1848, he had a chart of his head made at the famed Phrenological Cabinet on Nassau Street in Manhattan. Whitman kept this chart for the rest of his life, upgrading some of his scores as he saw fit. He even included it in three editions of Leaves of Grass because he thought it gave him creditability as a poet: “It was, according to phrenological opinion on the subject, a poet’s chart,” writes poet and critic Nathaniel Mackey.

The positive feeling was mutual. Fowler and Wells, owners of the Cabinet and recognized leaders in the field, published the second edition of Leaves of Grass. Their American Phrenological Journal also published Whitman’s anonymous review… of his own Leaves of Grass.

As Mackey makes clear, phrenology was central to Whitman’s conception of “a reformation of poetry and for poetry as a means of reformation.” The notion of body as text, and the text as body, repeated throughout Leaves of Grass, was Phrenology 101. Phrenological categories included Amativeness, the propensity for sexual love; Philoprogenitiveness, a love of offspring; Adhesiveness, for friendship and camaraderie; Alimentiveness, which controlled the appetite, and so on. “Adhesiveness became Whitman’s favorite phrenological term.”

Mackey continues:

A significantly commercial undertaking, practical phrenology marketed the idea that a person could change his or her character; bumps, like muscles, could be made bigger or smaller through more or less exercise. A belief in the changeability or, even, perfectibility of personality was crucial to phrenology’s program of improvement and social reform.

That’s not how phrenology worked in the beginning, however. It was initially called cranioscopy by its inventor, German physician Franz Gall. Gall held a dark view of human nature, going so far as to label one section of the brain “Murder.” In America, phrenology—the term was coined by Gall’s assistant Johan Spurzheim—was transformed from a gloomy Germanic destiny into a self-help scheme. “Self-esteem” was one of the phrenological categories; perhaps unsurprisingly, Whitman scored high on this one.

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But phrenology wasn’t just a self-help hustle. It had a darker side, paving the way to the “scientific” racism of the late nineteenth. Skull-measuring and IQ-testing were phrenology’s children. A phrenological diagram Mackey reproduces posits cranial development and forehead slope for seven types of humans (Human Idiot, Bushman, and so on to the “Highest Type,” the “Caucasian”). “Phrenology presented a version of manifest destiny at the individual level, mapping the head and making it readable,” writes Mackey, alluding to the political manifest destiny of westward expansion. It’s worth remembering that Whitman himself was all for the U.S. taking Mexican and Oregon territories, and although he opposed the spread of slavery, Whitman’s racial views were not at all as radical as his poetry.

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The Life of Forgotten Poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon

By Jessica Jacolbe

The newly published biography L.E.L.: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron,” written by literary critic Lucasta Miller, dives deep into the life of Letitia Elizabeth Landon. The book covers recent revelations about the poet, examining her legacy through a modern lens.

Landon was writing in Romantic-era England. She published novels and essays, but was known mostly for her sentimental romantic poetry, which appeared in literary annuals and magazines; in 1820, when she was 18, her first poem was published in London’s Literary Gazette. The following year, she published a book of poetry, The Fate of Adelaide, which sold well. Her work was attributed only to “L.E.L.,” and when her first poems were released her readers were fascinated by the mysterious poet. There was much speculation as to who the poet behind the initials might be before Landon was revealed as the writer. Literature scholar Glennis Stephenson notes that her poetry contained euphemisms for sex, allusions to passionate love, and “erotically suggestive images.” According to Stephenson, Landon purposefully created her writing persona, L.E.L., as a “poetic construction,” and was always keenly aware of the differences between L.E.L. and her actual self, even if her readers were not.

Landon understood instinctively her role as a female writer, and played with her audience’s perceptions. Through her poems’ narrators, she molded her image into what would be acceptable and appealing to the public, which in turn rewarded her with more attention. Literature scholar Jonas Cope writes, “Her interest, perhaps obsession, with the plight of personal interiority in a world of stifling fashionable exteriors makes sense when we consider that she rose to fame shortly after the ascension of George IV to the British throne.”

L.E.L. was considered a “poetess.” This gendered term for literary women of the Romantic era was a way to patronize their work as soon as it gained fame. Society and the literary critics of the time demanded a specific construction of female beauty, intelligence, and manner in which women should conduct themselves in public. Landon recognized the role of the female writer in her time and, since she needed to make a living, she took advantage. She had a keen understanding of the market and wrote what would sell. Cope goes on to write that this was why her poetry consisted of popular themes like love, death, and beauty.

Many critics argue that Landon fell victim to the literary market and only wrote to cater to a popular taste formed by the masses, never developing her own voice. Cope, however, disagrees: “[Landon] manipulates market forces to her own advantage. Doing so empowers her as a woman writer and literary entrepreneur.” Landon had agency over the work she was giving the audience and found power in it. In an 1832 article for The New Monthly Magazine, she wrote that the “best and most popular…poetry makes its appeal to the higher and better feelings of our nature.”

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Still, the public questioned her lifestyle and motives. Rumors abounded that she had had affairs and had borne illegitimate children. Scandal hounded her in London, until, as Stephenson writes,

the thirty-six year old Landon, wanting to escape scandals still simmering in London, made the disastrous decision to marry the saturnine George MacClean, Governor of the Gold Coast; three months after this she was dead in Cape Coast Castle, possibly a suicide, but more likely—and surely more appropriately—murdered.

Stephenson then acknowledges that this melodramatic reading of Landon’s death—after all, some scholars have suggested the poisoning of Landon may well have been accidental—is in line with Landon’s readers who confused her life with the drama of her poems.

How easy it is to repeat the errors of her contemporaries, to confuse Landon with L.E.L. and conclude that the poet finally became too caught up in her own myth, in her own creation, that her sordid demise was the result of a desire to live out the exotic life of which she wrote. But Landon’s work repeatedly denies us any such neat conclusions.

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The Posthumous Mystique of Thomas Chatterton

By Matthew Wills

Once upon a time, Thomas Chatterton was the famous dead poet. Chatterton (1752-1770) had already been dead for decades when he was taken up like a kind of mascot by the Romantics, including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron.

For them, Chatterton—who famously killed himself a few months before his eighteenth birthday—was the quintessence of the tormented, misunderstood, starving poet who dies alone, young and unknown. He was the prototype of the teenage poète maudit long before Rimbaud.

Chatterton’s suicide fit with the Romantic sense of tragedy. That he might not have killed himself was beside the point. In his re-evaluation of Chatterton’s work, cultural historian Ivan Phillips notes that Chatterton may have died by accident, taking too much of what passed for medicine for his venereal disease. But Chatterton’s posthumous legend made it suicide, the epitome of the much more recent adage “live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.” This was, after all, the era of the pan-European phenomenon of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. Werther’s fictional suicide had inspired a spate of actual youthful copycats.

Whatever Chatterton’s cause of death, when he died he “left behind a massive body of ‘acknowledged’ poems, letters, sketches, dramas, and essays, and an only slightly smaller body of poems, letters, sketches, dramas, and essays purporting to be by (or translated from) a cast of historical figures […].” Many of these forgeries were said (by Chatterton) to be written by a fifteenth-century monk named Thomas Rowley, so they’ve been called the “Rowley poems” ever since.

Phillips notes this divide in Chatterton’s work: “authentic but dull on one side, forged and fascinating on the other.” The reams of Chatterton’s work under his own name “have rarely been anyone’s concern,” but the fakes caused “learned dispute and extravagant enthusiasm (though precious little critical analysis) almost before the author was cold in his workhouse lime-pit.”

After all, this was the eighteenth century, the “golden age of literary forgeries” calling upon an imagined past, using that imagined past to create new traditions. The Ossian poems were the most famous of these. Even Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1749), the first Gothic novel, purported to be a translation of a text from a sixteenth-century Italian named Onuphrio Muralto.

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Chatterton didn’t merely write a few pseudo-medieval poems. He forged entire manuscripts. These, writes Phillips, were “forgeries in the strictest sense, reproductions of nothing, they are ready-mades that were assembled but never found, neither copies nor—according to any traditional understanding—originals.” The precocious Chatterton’s fake oeuvre is made up of “distressed parchment, singed and sooty, waxy, ragged, ink-blotted, fragile.” Philips goes on to describe them as “complex tactile and visual objects which revolt against print culture because they are both chimerical—they are forgeries of things which never existed—and unrepeatable.” Modern spellchecking software, he suggests, would melt down when tasked with Chatterton’s work.

“Rarely in print, infrequently read, critically untended,” Chatterton was almost all myth for the Romantics. Wordsworth, who was born the year Chatterton died, apostrophized him as “the marvelous Boy/ The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride.” Then the reputation-tidying Victorians got their hands on him. He was “cleaned up by the Victorians, all but cleared away by the twentieth century.” Yet Phillips finds Chatterton’s body of ersatz Medievalism surprisingly relevant in our own age. In Chatterton’s pre-modern work he finds both modernity and post-modernity, and a fascinating example of “the cultural force of forgery in general, and a uniquely adaptable politics of style.”

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What The Great Gatsby Reveals About The Jazz Age

By Amy Shearn

From the publication of his 1922 collection, Tales of the Jazz Age, and beyond, F. Scott Fitzgerald has been inextricably linked to jazz. Indeed, Fitzgerald is even widely believed to have coined the term “Jazz Age,” and although the phrase predated Fitzgerald’s book, his usage unquestionably boosted its popularity immensely. The presence of jazz in his other works, perhaps most iconically in his grand novel The Great Gatsby, linked the term even more tightly to his name.  Today, the moniker “Jazz Age” has come to signify, as a kind of evocative shorthand, the 1920s in both academic and pop culture. Because jazz’s lineage—difficult as it is to pin down—was tightly bound up with African-American performance, the music often came to signify black American cultural production, and so, whenever Fitzgerald invoked jazz, he was often, simultaneously, invoking blackness. Yet The Great Gatsby’s usage of jazz is complicated, as Fitzgerald was simultaneously a proponent of the then-new, race-crossing music and a writer prone to resorting to racial stereotypes when black characters appeared—a combination that, unfortunately, was far from uncommon in Fitzgerald’s day.

“It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire,” Fitzgerald famously wrote of the 1920s in a 1931 essay, “Echoes of the Jazz Age.”  In his mind, the decade defied any rigid definition, but what perhaps characterized it best was the jazz music he so frequently alluded to in his own writing. In Fitzgerald’s most popular novel, The Great Gatsby, jazz appears as constant background music. In the contemporary phenomenon of “Gatsby parties”—festivities intended to capture the air of the titular Jay Gatsby’s famously lavish, bacchanalian parties—jazz is de rigueur to evoke the 1920s.

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For all of its ubiquity in American culture in the twentieth century, however, jazz was also deeply divisive from its very beginnings. If jazz was the most visible example of a new musical form in early twentieth century America, it was also one of the most frequently vilified, often in ways that directly or implicitly connected to bigoted assumptions about blackness. And Fitzgerald’s incorporation of jazz both into The Great Gatsby and into his definition of the 1920s was similarly fraught. Despite his decrying of white supremacist ideologies, many of his depictions of African-Americans employ obvious, if casual, racial caricatures, even as he was willing to embrace the musical style that African-Americans invented and were indelibly associated with.

Jazz in the 20s

It is difficult to overstate the pre-eminence of jazz in the early twentieth century in America, appearing as a theme in everything from clubs to cartoons to realist fiction. “For the makers, consumers, and arbiters of culture,” the theater and music scholar David Savran wrote in 2006, “jazz was everything. A weltanschauung, a personal identity, a metaphysics, an epistemology, an ethics, an eros, a mode of sociality—an entire way of being.” It was a musical style that, with its improvised orchestration, complexity, and danceable melodies, seemed to represent, through the fusion of seemingly contrary impulses, so much of the world at the time: the dissonance of Modernism, on the one hand, with jazz’s rejection of straightforward classical music, and, on the other hand, its class-transcending popularity, whereby both rich and poor could, in theory, dance to similar music.

The origins of jazz are somewhat hazy. This is partly because, as the music scholar William Kenney notes, jazz did not come from one sole place. Instead, its ancestry can be traced back to musical theatre and black vaudeville performances in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—though the vaudevillian connections are often neglected in conventional histories of jazz. Early white historians of jazz, like Otis Ferguson and Sidney Finkelstein, argued, inaccurately, that jazz was essentially “folk music” played for all-black audiences—a mixing-up of jazz with country blues. Many classically-trained black Americans, like Will Marion Cook (who had studied music at Oberlin College), found themselves unable to work in grand concert halls, due to anti-black discrimination. As a result, they frequently turned to popular music, theatre, and vaudeville, which would lead, in part, to the formation of jazz, as well as to many other African-American theatrical and entertainment productions. Cook, for example, went on to produce the first African-American Broadway musical comedy, Clorindy, the Origin of the Cakewalk, in 1898.

The Protean Genre of Vaudeville

Vaudeville was one of the most enduring forms of entertainment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. A protean genre, it contained just about everything: skits, song-and-dance routines, comedy performances, minstrel shows, sketches, and more. Many popular acts included unusual sounds on stage, using washboards, saws, and other household items as instruments, usually for comic effect. In the years immediately following World War I, such novel orchestration was conventionally termed “jazz” or “novelty music.” Other acts featured well-known songs, like Ethelbert Nevin’s “The Rosary,” played on unexpected instruments. Nevin’s song, which was often performed on piano or violin, might be done with three clarinets instead, as the ragtime musician Wilbur Sweatman did in vaudeville performances.

These popular, innovative acts, as Kenney notes, led to white Americans and Europeans imitating this sort of improvisational instrumentation, and to African-American artists refining the vaudevillian shows into a more coherent musical form. The African-American musician James Reese Europe popularized jazz in France during WWI, performing “novelty music” with the 369th Infantry Band in 1918; earlier, he had formed the Clef Club, a society and band for black musicians, which would make history by playing the “new” music at Carnegie Hall. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, an all-white group that produced the first jazz record in 1919, incorporated barnyard noises in its hit single, “Livery Stable Blues,” a harkening to the use of bizarre sounds in black vaudeville.

Alongside all this, by the 1920s, black vaudeville had become increasingly popular with interracial audiences, particularly due to the presence of black female vocalists who could draw huge crowds and garner critical acclaim, like Mamie Smith, Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, and many others. Their songs often featured bands playing the “novelty” music, which had by now become firmly known as jazz. Because of this, along with an ever-growing stable of jazz-playing showmen and African-Americans publishing sheet music, jazz began to reach an even wider audience, until it became the most popular music of the 1920s.

White Americans and Black Jazz

As the scholar Maureen Anderson points out, white Americans swiftly condemned this new, ubiquitous music. “Unspeakable Jazz Must Go,” read one headline; another, more overtly racist, argued “Why ‘Jazz’ Sends Us Back to the Jungle.”  Critics who wished to demean African-Americans now had a new way to do so, through vitriolic articles about jazz. Indeed, a striking number of anti-jazz articles in mainstream magazines between 1917 and 1930 sought to attack African-Americans more than the music itself. One of the earliest such pieces, “The Appeal of Primitive Jazz” (1917), decried the “colored” groups as seeming to be “infected with a virus” that made them “shake and jump and writhe in ways to suggest a return of the medieval jumping mania.” If such casual dismissiveness was not enough, the writer then argued that jazz was performed by “savages” who showed their “aggressive” and “retarded” nature through music, an image that would likely have brought to some readers’ minds the image of Gus from the 1915 movie Birth of a Nation, in which Gus, an old colonial caricature of black men as dangerous and sexually rapacious, assaults white women.  Jazz, in this all-too-common line of reasoning, did not advance us; it brought us backwards, and possibly even endangered white listeners.

Moreover, white critics often associated jazz with minstrelsy. The earnest contributions to music history by black vaudeville performers was almost always overshadowed by the contemptuous, caricatured performances of white Americans wearing blackface in minstrel shows. This, along with Jim Crow-era racism, meant that jazz quickly became associated in many Americans’ minds not only with the musical style itself, but with the worst images of anti-black mockery. An iconic example of this was Al Jolson’s blackface performance in the epochal 1927 movie, The Jazz Singer, which heralded the end of the silent film era. Jolson, portraying a white Jewish singer, decides to “become American” by wearing blackface and crooning jazz on stage; as the scholar Michael Rogin observes, because blackface and minstrelsy were amongst the most iconic images at the time of American entertainment, viewers would have understood, immediately, how merging jazz and blackface was equivalent to projecting an identity of “American-ness.”

In much the same vein, an explicit connection between jazz and minstrelsy appeared in a famous Betty Boop cartoon, “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You” (1932), in which Louis Armstrong and his band perform. In the episode—which, by virtue of Armstrong’s presence, has become part of jazz history—Betty Boop is captured on a safari by dark-skinned cannibals, who attempt to devour her. When her companions, Bimbo and Koko the Clown, attempt to save her, they are chased by a cannibal in an extended scene in which their pursuer morphs into a gigantic black head, which then shifts into Armstrong’s own face, then back into the cannibal, the head’s engorged proportions suggesting the exaggerations of minstrel shows. Armstrong is thus represented as both a skilled singer and  a “savage” attempting to eradicate white characters. Such racist iconography was hardly unusual for cartoons of the Jazz Age and beyond, reinforcing the idea that American cultural production, jazz, and minstrelsy all existed together—an idea softly present, too, in The Great Gatsby, as jazz in the book indicates the American-ness of the text, alongside its minstrel-like racial caricatures in the few times it mentions black Americans.

Despite, or perhaps because of, jazz’s prominence, all the way up to the 1950s, the most conservative critics dismissed jazz as the Devil’s music, immoral orchestration that encouraged sex, drugs, and violence. Writers warning against the “Satanic” quality of jazz, however, were not merely giving jazz the same treatment that rock and hip-hop later would get; they were also drawing on a long history of associating black people with evil—“darkness”—by virtue of one’s swarthy skin, a racist tradition extending well into the early days of European colonialism.

Fitzgerald’s Relationship with Jazz – and Race

Fitzgerald’s embrace of jazz, then, was both an acceptance of popular music and a rejection of these racist critiques. Although the word “jazz” only appears a few times in the Great Gatsby, the music itself is ever-present; when music is playing in the background, Fitzgerald frequently refers to saxophones and horns, iconic instruments of the genre. Because of how organically omnipresent jazz is in Fitzgerald’s novel, virtually all later depictions of the book feature roaring jazzy orchestras as a way of capturing the book’s atmosphere, from film adaptations to the by-now-common phenomenon of the Gatsby party. So indebted is Gatsby to jazz and its origins that the critics Catherine Kunce and Paul M. Levitt have strikingly argued that even the structure of the novel itself can be convincingly read as a kind of extended vaudevillian performance.

At the same time, however, Fitzgerald tended to outline black characters in language straight out of minstrel iconography. In The Great Gatsby and elsewhere, black men are often described as “bucks,” a term linking black males to animals white men might hunt. As Gatsby drives Nick Carraway into New York, the narrator describes passing “three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.” The men are “bucks;” the rolling eyeballs suggest a caricature from a minstrel poster; and the whole group is meant to inspire laughter. That this is one of the few times black characters explicitly appear in the novel is suggestive.

The cover of The Great Gatsby, 1925
via Wikimedia Commons

These tendencies of Fitzgerald’s did not go unnoticed. On July 23rd, 1934, Earl W. Wilkins, an avid reader of Fitzgerald’s, sent him a letter. “Must all male Negroes in your books and stories be called ‘bucks?’” he asked. Within a fortnight, the scholar Alan Margolies reveals, Fitzgerald replied, but his response has unfortunately been lost. Still, it seemed Wilkins’s letter had made an impression, as Fitzgerald saved it.

Such racist imagery was not exclusive to Fitzgerald’s fiction. In a letter from May, 1921, to Edmund Wilson, Fitzgerald described a trip to Europe by claiming that “[t]he negroid streak creeps northward to defile the Nordic race.” The phrasing contains uncomfortable echoes of racialist pseudoscience and white supremacy.

Yet Fitzgerald would later argue stridently against the white-supremacist movement of “Nordicism,” which held that whites in Europe and America were being “replaced” by the “spread” of nonwhites and that white people would soon simply cease to exist (an idea echoed today in memes about “white genocide”). When Gatsby’s narrator describes Tom Buchanan’s infamous white-supremacist rants as “impassioned gibberish,” he is perhaps echoing Fitzgerald’s own views. The ideology of “Nordicism” appears in Gatbsy only as further proof of Buchanan’s irredeemable unpleasantness, as Buchanan—the book’s most overtly racist character—is clearly meant to be unlikeable.

Fitzgerald’s deployment of jazz imagery, then, was as cutting-edge as it was conservative. He embraced the new music; he struggled more to embrace its practitioners and progenitors. He was willing to learn. Yet in the age when jazz was at its arguable peak of public visibility, he was still not able to see black people in the same way he saw white Americans and Europeans.

Empathy is partly what jazz set out to create, unsettling traditions and traditionalists at first, then luring them in with its almost surreal, fey beauty. Jazz attempted to dissolve social lines between race, class, and political affiliation, as in James Baldwin’s famous short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” in which the new music ultimately brings two long-warring brothers together by the sheer emotiveness of the melodies that the titular Sonny plays for his sibling. Jazz was, to a degree, an equalizing force both in Fitzgerald’s oeuvre and the wider world.

The Great Gatsby, then, was a clear product of its time, embracing the new music but also falling prey to the caricatures that had become associated with it. Still, it used jazz as the gentle but powerful backdrop to a story of failed love that endures today, and in this way, along with his usage of the term “Jazz Age,” Fitzgerald helped cement the idea that jazz defined the 1920s. For all his flaws, Fitzgerald, too, was a dancer on that grand stage of an era, saxophones, pianos, and everything else blaring around him.

The post What <em>The Great Gatsby</em> Reveals About The Jazz Age appeared first on JSTOR Daily.

Poetry from Independent Voices

By Catherine Halley

As we reach the end of Poetry Month, you might like to know about the amazing collection of alternative literary magazines that are part of Reveal Digital’s Independent Voices collection. Here, anyone (you!) can browse rare gems like Adventures in Poetry and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. And so, so much more.

Rest assured that we will be highlighting various parts of the Independent Voices collection in the future—Reveal Digital is now part of ITHAKA, our parent organization—but in the meantime, round out your poetry month by having a look at a few things we found this afternoon.

Bernadette Mayer, from Moving, published in Adventures in Poetry: “This is an epic of war fever fighting sex and starvation…”

The first issue of Chrysalis, where you’ll find poems by Audre Lorde, Honor Moore, and Adrienne Rich.

The cover of the first issue of Chrysalis Magazine
The cover of the first issue of Chrysalis Magazine


John Ashbery in O-blek responding to, we presume, Wallace Stevens: “The waltz no longer a strain/now”.

Or, a critique of capitalism by the likes of Kathy Acker, which is maybe not a poem, but is in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and is still great!

You can search by author, title, etc. or browse around some of the titles in the Independent Voices collection.

Have fun!


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When Language Started a Political Revolution

By Chi Luu

In these last days of empire, Britain is slowly withdrawing into some isolated hikikomori state, distrusting old European relationships, trying to build a future by longing for a past that never was. This former empire, fretfully and not always functionally, has had to reconsider what it means now to be British.

The debate over Brexit, so steeped in desire for sovereignty and nostalgia for the days of the empire, often overlooks something crucial: Britain is not just a land that is forever England. There are actually other countries in the United Kingdom. Scotland and Northern Ireland, two Gaelic countries, each with their own rich cultures and native languages, voted to stay with their European friends and neighbors. What of their rights and sovereignty?

Breaking up is hard to do

As strong as the cultural ties are between the countries that make up Great Britain, this kind of split has happened before. But Brexiteers don’t always see the strong parallels between Great Britain wanting to leave the European Union, and that one time, still in living memory, when the Republic of Ireland wanted to leave the United Kingdom.

Many conservative politicians have displayed a mindboggling ignorance about parts of their own nation that are not English, dismissing them as trivial or unimportant, only to realize too late that, for one, the knotty Irish border problem is probably not one that should unravel on its own. One Tory MP simply assumed that all English people would be automatically entitled to Irish passports which would presumably allow them all the benefits of the EU… and still have their Brexit. Eager Eurosceptic politicians may not have seriously considered the fracturing of the United Kingdom as a result of Brexit, but there’s a growing momentum for Scottish independence, a united Ireland, and even talk of an independent Wales. These would not be adrift and anchorless countries, going it alone, but nations with European futures.

The Easter Rising

These days, leaving means an exchange of petulant words and white papers. But back at the turn of the twentieth century, during the Easter Rising of 1916, disagreement with these kinds of Anglo-Saxon attitudes of superior entitlement meant over 3000 people were arrested, fifteen Irish revolutionary leaders were executed… and at least one linguist was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Eoin MacNeill
Eoin MacNeill

Yes, one of the most influential thinkers and leaders of the Irish revolution was a linguistic scholar turned political revolutionary, Eoin MacNeill. MacNeill was a co-founder of the Conradh na Gaeilge, the Gaelic League, which aimed to preserve Irish language and culture. He became a key figure of the Gaelic revival. No one could have guessed that the grassroots revival of an almost dead language would be so dangerous, so threatening, to those who were in favor of the union with Britain. Brigittine M. French’s essay on the curious linguistic history of Irish independence shows how, while Britain has often had mixed feelings about its place in Europe, the conception of Ireland as linguistically and culturally European, rather than British, was one of the central motivations for independence.  French argues that Eoin MacNeill’s scientifically-approached linguistic research on the Irish language, as well as his linguistic ideology that language and nationhood were intertwined (and this could be inclusive rather than negatively exclusive), would play a huge role in the quest for Irish sovereignty for all those who thought of themselves as Irish.

MacNeill’s Gaelic League cofounder was the more well-known and charismatic Douglas Hyde. Hyde would eventually become the first president of the Republic, while MacNeill (after being released from prison and then later re-arrested, with all his scholarly research confiscated) would become the first minister of Education. The highly influential Gaelic League was at first intensely dedicated to “the preservation of Irish as the National Language of Ireland, the extension of its use as a spoken language, the study and publication of existing Irish literature, and the cultivation of a modern literature in Irish.”

What is the Irish Language?

Not everyone knows that Ireland has its own language. It’s actually one of Europe’s first, pre-Christian literary languages, thousands of years older than English. Yet it’s now spoken regularly by only about 2% of the Irish population. It’s called “Gaeilge” in Irish, and “Irish” in English by the Irish, and often (improperly) “Gaelic” by non-Irish others, or “Irish Gaelic” to distinguish it from its mostly mutually intelligible dialectal sibling, “Scottish Gaelic” (also known, confusingly, as “Gaelic”). And of course there’s (Irish) English, which is the more prominently spoken of Ireland’s two official languages, as Irish speaker Manchán Magan found in his documentary series No Béarla (No English), in which he attempts to travel around his own country using just Irish, only to be continually asked to “speak English.” In linguistically-fraught Northern Ireland, unionist politicians regularly disrespect and are stridently opposed to government support of any official status for the language, undercutting its links to an Irish identity, even going so far as to furiously scratch Irish words off manhole covers.

What manner of dire things happened to make an ancient language once spoken by the Irish majority decline in popularity and cause so much hate? Classical Irish, an early modern literary standard of the language used by the Irish majority, began to fade out by the seventeenth century, as its speakers were “annihilated or dispersed” through a concerted, long-running campaign of ethnic cleansing, in which a third of the population was killed through execution or starvation or banished into slavery in the Carribbean. The destruction of the language was often part of official British policy, such as the law that the Irish must take on English surnames or lose their property. In 1585, British statesman Sir Henry Sidney told the king he thought the best solution for controlling these unruly people who refused to accept they were British was “all brehons [judges], carraghes, bards, rhymers, friars, monks, Jesuits, pardoners, nuns and such like, to be executed by martial law… Irish habits for men and women to be abolished, and the English tongue to be extended.” Army commander Sir Charles Coote simplified this in 1641 by ordering his men to just kill all Irish adults and children “more than a span long.”

When yet another attempt at independence in the eighteenth century, supported by France, was crushed, Ireland fully merged with Great Britain. The language of the colonists, English, took over as a majority language. The only spoken Irish that remained were the dialects of the rural poor. The quality of life for these speakers declined so markedly in the nineteenth century, with the Great Famine, that Irish became stigmatized as the language of outcasts and the dispossessed, where the majority opinion, even for some Irish leaders, was that “even in Ireland the respectable people do not speak it, only the wilder sort.”

With that kind of history, it’s remarkable that the Irish are still on speaking terms with the English language, much less friends with their once oppressive neighbor.

Language and National Identity

We’re often told that in terms of Ireland it’s differences in factors like class and religion that group people apart politically, such as Catholics (pro-independence) vs. Protestants (pro-union). In truth there are people of diverse beliefs on either side. It’s interesting to note that independent Ireland’s first president, Douglas Hyde, was an upper middle class Protestant, voted in by Catholics, and worked together with Eoin MacNeill, a middle class Catholic, in both revolution and language revival.

Language seems like such an ordinary, insignificant part of our lives. We use it to pass the salt, remember the milk, and make small talk with our neighbors. But language, even a homely community language, can be a powerful symbol and expression of shared national identity, what it means to be the same, from the same place. Both Hyde and MacNeill were well aware that language was central to a debate on nationalism, uniting a people, diverse in ethnicities, religion, dialects or beliefs, into a community and a country. Hyde declared “in Anglicising ourselves wholesale we have thrown away with a light heart the best claim we have upon the world’s recognition of us as a separate nationality. […] What do the Spectator and Saturday Review harp on? That we ought to be content as an integral part of the United Kingdom because we have lost the robes of nationality, our language and customs.”

Many countries and cultures celebrate their language as an expression of their unique identity. This designation can start to seem negative when the expression of other ways of speaking is tied to systemic punishment, shame, or hate speech. The United States for one doesn’t actually have an official language, but that doesn’t stop some Americans from raging at Spanish speakers to “speak English, this is America”, even to the point of violence. Yet the Spanish language has an older history in America, having been introduced to the lands that would eventually become the United States by way of Christopher Columbus. The first Spanish settlement at St Augustine, Florida was founded in 1565, just as Shakespeare was probably about to utter his first baby words and certainly much earlier than the first English settlement in Jamestown in 1607. A country can support more than one language without diluting what it means to be from that country. Certainly a lack of one language shouldn’t invalidate a people’s national identity.

The relationship of language to nationalist movements can indeed be problematic, but, drawing on a long history of linguistic persecution, Eoin MacNeill did not believe in championing just one way of speaking while forbidding others. The diversity of the Irish people could be united as the same through the joint ownership of their slowly dying ancient language. MacNeill believed in taking in all of its living dialects, instead of choosing just one and imposing that as a standard, while refusing all others. That evolved language would be tied to a modern Irish identity and culture, which was different from an expression of that culture in the more predominantly spoken English language.

“If Irish is to become once more the language of a nation, it must shape itself to express all the thoughts of a modern nation’s life… The view [of Irish as an inferior language to English] more than anything else, led to the weakening in Ireland of that instinct, universal among nations, of recognizing in the national language the most essential element of national life.”

Remarkably, as MacNeill showed, even something as simple and as strange as spelling and phonetics can help define a national identity and culture.

The Curious Irish Spelling System

As English speakers, we look at spelling and its phonetics from an Anglo perspective, in which one letter represents one sound and that a perfectly phonetic, one-to-one system is the ideal. We never think to think in any other way. English spelling is of course far from perfect, with many irregular, archaic forms still in use, and more than one letter used for one sound, such as “th.” In the gilded age, there was a perfect mania, a “cult of efficiency,” for spelling to be reformed and simplified, bankrolled by Andrew Carnegie. A prominent engineer, Frank B. Gilbreth, believed spelling just needed fixing to match the ideal and confidently thought that “it should not be difficult to convince anyone that standardizing spelling is primarily a problem in finding the One Best Way, which is the special work of the engineer.” This assumes there’s only one way to use the Roman alphabet, which MacNeill decried.

“Owing to the fact that most of us learn to spell in English first, many imagine that spelling according to the English system, or want of a system, has a kind of divine right or prior claim to the representation of sounds. […] We daily hear that such and such a thing is written “phonetically,” meaning that it is spelled in the English way.”

Carnegie and Gilbreth would have been horrified or amazed, as many people are, if they’d seen Irish words written down. Irish used to use its own writing system, Ogham, before it moved to the Latin alphabet and had to do the best with what that imperfect system could give. Full of strings of vowels and consonants clumped bewilderingly together, such as in bhfaighidh” “will get” (which is pronounced almost as a monosyllable), Irish spelling looks so weird and unwieldy from an English spelling perspective, that Irish names like Saoirse, Siobhan, and Niamh are often mispronounced by non-Irish speakers who want to sound out every letter the English way.

In fact the Irish spelling system, simplified in the 1940s to remove many archaic spellings, though complex, is fairly regular, phonetic and logical, once you know the very un-English code, compared to some of the more illogically phonetic archaic forms we might encounter in English. Irish also maintains a relationship to the phonology, morphology, syntax, and history of the language in a useful way that is otherwise erased in English spelling.

Irish’s spelling system elides the concept of an alphabet as indicated one sound for one symbol. Left to form Irish words with a borrowed, reduced Latin alphabet that didn’t have enough letters (especially when it came to things like typesetting and typewriters, there was not much choice), Irish uses sequences of silent letters that indicate more precisely how a word is to be pronounced and more clearly shows the relationship of sounds to each other. In English for example, we might be amazed once we realise that “b” and “v” and even “w” are phonetically related since we use different symbols for them, but in Irish, with “b”, “bh” [v] and “bh” [w] (depending on the vowel that follows) the relationship is clear. It’s a pretty clever system.

Ireland’s Place in European Culture

But it can be harder to achieve Irish literacy if you’re bogged down with English phonetic assumptions. By encouraging people to appreciate the Irish language in a more Irish-centric way, even down to the sound and the letter, MacNeill was advocating for more independence and separation from a thinking that gave English modes of writing a higher default status.

Weekly Digest


MacNeill’s research on the Irish language as its own independent entity unrelated to English customs was influential partially thanks to help and support from a growing pan-European scientific interest in Celtic languages and Romanticism, particularly Irish culture. German linguistic scholars especially were arguing for an inclusion of the Celtic family of languages into Indo-European, which had been disregarded before. It was this kind of scientific and linguistic enquiry that was a foundation for the much maligned Irish identity and language to really claim its place and status as a historically significant and older European culture… and helped fuel the growing desire for independence by its people.

A far cry from a traditional British suspicion of the European continent, Irish revolutionary leaders, through linguistic scholarship of their very own language, were embracing an independent Irish way of thinking, their connections to a rich European past and looking forward to a European future.


Editors’ Note: An earlier draft of this piece misspelled “Gaeilge” as “Gaelige;” the error has been corrected.

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Celebrating National Poetry Month

By The Editors

Happy National Poetry Month! To celebrate, we pulled together our best stories about poetry with free links to poems from contemporary and classic American poets.

“Mad Meg,” the Poet-Duchess of 17th Century England

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, shocked the establishment by publishing poems and plays under her own name.

The Poet Who Wanted to Be Eaten by Vultures

One day in 1971, the hard-drinking Beat poet Lew Welch walked into the woods of Nevada County and disappeared, possibly angling to be eaten by vultures.

What This 19th-Century Poet Knew About the Future

The Anthropocene requires a new history to explain how humans transform the planet. The work of poet John Clare is a good place to start.

Ten Poems about Travel

Poetry about all kinds of travel—from grand adventures to family vacations—by Elizabeth Bishop, Rita Dove, and more.

The Restoration’s Filthiest Poet (and Why We Need Him)

Creature of the court, royalist and fop, dandy and dilettante, John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, knew how to scandalize with verse.

What, Prithee, Is a Poetess?

The loss and recovery of a poetic genre shows how the canon of literary history treats women writers the moment they start to gain attention and approval.

Summertime Poems and Paintings

Summery poems by Mary Oliver, Matthew Zapruder, and other poets, along with seasonal paintings by Claude Monet and other artists.

Ten Poems By Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932, and became in her short life one of the most influential poets of the era.

10 Poems by African-American Poets

Poems by African-American poets, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Kwame Dawes, Rita Dove, Langston Hughes, Tyehimba Jess, Kevin Young, and more.

The Snow That Never Drifts: Emily Dickinson’s Slant Winter

Like many of her poems, Emily Dickinson's "The Snow That Never Drifts" presents a riddle for the reader

Seven Favorite Flower Poems

Our editors pick flower poems from Poetry magazine, American Poetry Review, and the Kenyon Review.

A Belief in Ghosts: Poetry and the Shared Imagination

An essay from poet Dorothea Lasky on poetry, ghosts, and the shared imagination.

The Drag Aesthetic of Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes' poetry was influenced by the drag scene in 1920s Harlem.

10 Poems by Lucie Brock-Broido

Ten poems by the accomplished poet and teacher Lucie Brock-Broido.

MacArthur Genius Fellow Maggie Nelson Writes Poetry, Too. Here’s Some Of It.

She can pack a room with her prose, but Maggie Nelson's got a poet's ear.

The Privileged and Impoverished Life of Phillis Wheatley

The first African American of either gender to publish a book of poetry has remained a controversial figure in the black community.

Taylor Swift: 1989’s Confessional Poet

Since she first came to prominence, Taylor Swift's songs have been read autobiographically.

Walt Whitman the… Politician?

Before Walt Whitman was a famous poet, he was a scandalous poet, but before even all that he was in the thick of local and national politics.

Want more stories like this one?


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