Friday, April 25, 2008

From Beowulf to Virginia Woolf

At first glance, Robert Manson Myers', From Beowulf to Virginia Woolf (Bobbs-Merrill, 1952), would appear to be a light survey of English literature for the period indicated in the title--a slim volume for such a lengthy range of years and a cartoonish illustration on the cover. But a second glance picks up on the subtitle (astounding and wholly unauthorized), which seems odd right away. Then you read the caption under the cover illustration, William the Conqueror. Light survey gives way to light-hearted and later to downright humorous survey. But just thumb through the pages to find out what kind of humor you are in for. Pretty wacked out and wickedly funny. And that back cover of the jacket... Take a look at the author and his write-up.

The author photo looks like some Dutch Masters painting, the photo credit goes to the unlikely name of Fabius Blackrock. A google search confirms unlikely. The author's bestselling The Case of the Missing Umlaut is referenced as having swept the nation as both a book and a movie. Googling that produces nothing. Further, his distinguished lineage includes a great-uncle Professor Dewberry Oldberry of the Newberry Library. There's more, but the write-up ends with the author's current occupation-- teaching Creative Listening at Pamunkey State College for Women. By now, I'm smiling at the humor revealed from peeling back pretentious, dry layers of my own making because of a title. And at how I was a bit duped. Time to thumb though the book and investigate the extent of the intended humor.

Facing the title page is a Literary Map of England, which includes Scotland and Ireland as well. Here you'll find Northanger Abbey as well as Rin-Tin-Tin's Abbey. You'll find Pepys' Dairy (not Diary), Drake's Bowling Alley, Sussex, Middlesx and Nossex, Wed Loch, Yale Loch and Rape Loch. And more nonsense like that.

The copyright page (does anyone ever read these?) indicates First Edition and has a long paragraph, titled Note that explains how the book was previously published in a literary journal and thanks are expressed for permission to reprint. More thanks are given to Viking for using material from their series of Boners books (very recently augmented by Bigger and Better Boners). What?!?! Back to google... Yes, Viking did publish a couple of books called Boners and More Boners in 1931. Guess who illustrated them? Theodor Geisel (his first illustrated books), better known years later as Dr. Seuss. And in 1952 there really was a Viking Press volume of Bigger and Better Boners, apparently lacking in the sexual connotation of today and the ubiquitous male enhancement ads. But Myers has me questioning everything now as he has deftly spliced the factual with fictional humor.

The first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book, assuming the jacket write-up and frontispiece map didn't already do it for you. Here's the first paragraph from that chapter:
At the door of English literature stands Beowulf, the great Dane, who once upon a time inhabited the forest primeval with Ethelwulf, his wife, and is therefore known as The Noble Savage. It would, of course, be absurd to dwell on Beowulf's particulars in a brief survey such as this, especially since those details are recorded in Beowulf's autobiographical beast epic, first published in 1066 as The Doomsday Book. This famous first edition was printed on a cotton manuscript, destroyed by fire in 1731 and later purchased from descendants of the Beowulf family by Andrew Carnegie. The original duodecimo is totally ineligible. With the persistent efforts of scholars, however, it has emerged that Beowulf sailed forth boldly into the filth and froth of the Firth of Forth in the spring of 596. Following his slaughter of Grendel (a task as odious as Oedipus' cleansing of the Aegean stables), the epic hero retraced his footsteps across the sea. His spritely narrative abounds with sketches of such Cro-Magnon dignitaries as Half-Dane, High Shellac, and Wroth Child.
The illustrations are just as ludicrous with their meaningless captions. To wit:

First, this is just a strange looking scene to illustrate. What the heck is going on here? I know it has nothing to do with Myers' description of a Sunday in the country with Sir Roger de Coverlet, an old Anguische tradition (whatever that is), and chocolate being served afterward! It's so crazy, it's funny. I wanted to find out more about the illustration and put some kind of meaning to such a weird-looking scene. It is attributed to a print hanging in the Will Coffin House. There is no such place that I can find. I don't doubt there is such a print because Myers expresses gratitude, back on the copyright page, to Houghton Mifflin for their permission to reproduce illustrations from The History of the Novel in England, by Robert Morss Lovett and Helen Sard Hughes. And I can verify that this book is for real, published in 1932. But that's about all in this book anyone could vouch for.

But in researching Robert Manson Myers, I found a former student of his who wrote about him in one of her blog entries. From the sounds of it, he was no joke in the classroom. What a wonderful teacher he must have been.

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