Exploring the Black Experience through the Arts

Black Americans’ work in the arts has long been both prominent and under-recognized. Black artists’ expressions of their experiences are some of the most iconic artifacts of American history. This Black History Month, we explore Black resistance through visual art, literature, and other art forms, and we highlight the central role of Black artists and Black art in American aesthetics and culture.

These books from PUP’s catalog focus on an iconic historical engraving, an award-winning immigrant writer, Black literature under surveillance, an important contemporary visual artist, and the poetry of loss, memory, and the natural world.

One of the most iconic images of slavery is a schematic wood engraving depicting the human cargo hold of a slave ship. First published by British abolitionists in 1788, it exposed this widespread commercial practice for what it really was–shocking, immoral, barbaric, unimaginable. Printed as handbills and broadsides, the image Cheryl Finley has termed the “slave ship icon” was easily reproduced, and by the end of the eighteenth century it was circulating by the tens of thousands around the Atlantic rim. Committed to Memory provides the first in-depth look at how this artifact of the fight against slavery became an enduring symbol of black resistance, identity, and remembrance.

Beautifully illustrated, Committed to Memory features works from around the world, taking readers from the United States and England to West Africa and the Caribbean. It shows how contemporary black artists and their allies have used this iconic eighteenth-century engraving to reflect on the trauma of slavery and come to terms with its legacy.

“Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously. This is what I’ve always thought it meant to be a writer. Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.”—Create Dangerously

In this deeply personal book, the celebrated Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat reflects on art and exile, examining what it means to be an immigrant artist from a country in crisis. Inspired by Albert Camus’ lecture, “Create Dangerously,” and combining memoir and essay, Danticat tells the stories of artists, including herself, who create despite, or because of, the horrors that drove them from their homelands and that continue to haunt them. Danticat also suggests that the aftermaths of natural disasters in Haiti and the United States reveal that the countries are not as different as many Americans might like to believe.

Create Dangerously is an eloquent and moving expression of Danticat’s belief that immigrant artists are obliged to bear witness when their countries of origin are suffering from violence, oppression, poverty, and tragedy.

Brooklyn-born Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) was one of the most important artists of the 1980s. A key figure in the New York art scene, he inventively explored the interplay between words and images throughout his career, first as a member of SAMO, a graffiti group active on the Lower East Side in the late 1970s, and then as a painter acclaimed for his unmistakable Neoexpressionist style. From 1980 to 1987, he filled numerous working notebooks with drawings and handwritten texts. This facsimile edition reproduces the pages of eight of these fascinating and rarely seen notebooks for the first time.

The Notebooks are filled with images and words that recur in Basquiat’s paintings and other works. Iconic drawings and pictograms of crowns, teepees, and hatch-marked hearts share space with handwritten texts, including notes, observations, and poems that often touch on culture, race, class, and life in New York. Like his other work, the notebooks vividly demonstrate Basquiat’s deep interests in comic, street, and pop art, hip-hop, politics, and the ephemera of urban life. They also provide an intimate look at the working process of one of the most creative forces in contemporary American art.

Few institutions seem more opposed than African American literature and J. Edgar Hoover’s white-bread Federal Bureau of Investigation. But behind the scenes the FBI’s hostility to black protest was energized by fear of and respect for black writing. Drawing on nearly 14,000 pages of newly released FBI files, F.B. Eyes exposes the Bureau’s intimate policing of five decades of African American poems, plays, essays, and novels. Starting in 1919, year one of Harlem’s renaissance and Hoover’s career at the Bureau, secretive FBI “ghostreaders” monitored the latest developments in African American letters. By the time of Hoover’s death in 1972, these ghostreaders knew enough to simulate a sinister black literature of their own. The official aim behind the Bureau’s close reading was to anticipate political unrest. Yet, as William J. Maxwell reveals, FBI surveillance came to influence the creation and public reception of African American literature in the heart of the twentieth century.

Illuminating both the serious harms of state surveillance and the ways in which imaginative writing can withstand and exploit it, F.B. Eyes is a groundbreaking account of a long-hidden dimension of African American literature.

In Radioactive Starlings, award-winning poet Myronn Hardy explores the divergences between the natural world and technology, asking what progress means when it destroys the places that sustain us. Primarily set in North Africa and the Middle East, but making frequent reference to the poet’s native United States, these poems reflect on loss, beauty, and dissent, as well as memory and the contemporary world’s relationship to the collective past.

A meditation on the complexities of transformation, cultures, and politics, Radioactive Starlings is an important collection from a highly accomplished young poet.


Browse Our 2018 Literature Catalog

Our new Literature catalog includes an unguarded look into the mind of Vladimir Nabokov, an examination of simultaneous absorption in and critical distance from a work of art, a study of poetry and community through the use of the word “we,” and much more.

If you’ll be at MLA 2018 in New York this weekend, stop by Booths 122-123 to see our full range of recent literature titles. We will toast new publications and award winners at a booth reception on January 5th at 4:30pm.

In October 1964, Vladimir Nabokov, a lifelong insomniac, began a curious experiment. Over the next eighty days, immediately upon waking, he wrote down his dreams, following the instructions he found in An Experiment with Time by the British philosopher John Dunne. The purpose was to test the theory that time may go in reverse, so that, paradoxically, a later event may generate an earlier dream. The result—published in its entirety for the first time—is a fascinating record of sixty-four dreams (and subsequent daytime episodes) that afford a rare glimpse of the artist at his most private.

Insomniac Dreams also includes previously unpublished records of Nabokov’s dreams from his letters and notebooks, and explores important connections between his fiction and private writings on dreams and time.

When you are half lost in a work of art, what happens to the half left behind? Semi-Detached delves into this state of being: what it means to be within and without our social and physical milieu, at once interacting and drifting away, and how it affects our ideas about aesthetics. John Plotz focuses on Victorian and early modernist writers and artists who understood their work as tapping into, amplifying, or giving shape to a suspended duality of experience.

In a time of cyber-dependency and virtual worlds, when it seems that attention to everyday reality is stretching thin, this book takes a historical and critical look at the halfway-thereness that artists and audiences have long comprehended and embraced in their aesthetic encounters.

The Plural of Us is the first book to focus on the poet’s use of the first-person plural voice—poetry’s “we.” Closely exploring the work of W. H. Auden along with other major poets, Bonnie Costello uncovers the trove of thought and feeling carried in this small word. While lyric has long been associated with inwardness and a voice saying “I,” “we” has hardly been noticed, even though it has appeared throughout the history of poetry. Reading for this pronoun in its variety and ambiguity, Costello explores the communal function of poetry—the reasons, risks, and rewards of the first-person plural.

Gary Saul Morson & Morton Schapiro: The Humanomics of Tax Reform

CentsThe Trump administration is now placing tax reform near the top of its legislative agenda. Perhaps they will garner the votes for tax reduction, but reform? Good luck.

It has been three decades since there has been meaningful tax reform in this country. In 1986, tax shelters were eliminated, the number of tax brackets went from 15 to 4, including a reduction of the highest marginal tax rate from 50% to 38.5% and the standard deduction was increased, simplifying tax preparation and resulting in zero tax liability for millions of low-income families. At the same time, a large-scale expansion of the alternative minimum tax affected substantial numbers of the more affluent.

President Reagan insisted that the overall effect be neutral with regard to tax revenues. That demand made it possible to set aside the issue of whether government should be larger or smaller and instead focus on inefficiencies or inequities in how taxes were assessed. Two powerful Democrats, Dick Gephardt in the House and Bill Bradley in the Senate, were co-sponsors.

Economists might evaluate the merits of this monumental piece of legislation in terms of the incentives and disincentives it created, its ultimate impact on labor force participation, capital investment and the like, but there is another metric to be evaluated – was it perceived to be fair? Accounts from that day imply that it was.

The notion of fairness is not generally in the wheelhouse of economics. But the humanities have much to say on that matter.

To begin with, literature teaches that fairness is one of those concepts that seem simple so long as one does not transcend one’s own habitual way of looking at things. As soon as one learns to see issues from other points of view, different conceptions of fairness become visible and simple questions become more complex. Great novels work by immersing the reader in one character’s perspective after another, so we learn to experience how different people – people as reasonable and decent as we ourselves are – might honestly come to see questions of fairness differently.

So, the first thing that literature would suggest is that, apart from the specific provisions of the 1986 tax reform, the fact that it was genuinely bipartisan was part of what made it fair. Bipartisanship meant the reform was not one side forcing its will on the other. Had the same reform been passed by one party, it would not have seemed so fair. Part of fairness is the perception of fairness, which suggests that the process, not just the result, was fair.

Fairness, of course, also pertains to the content of the reforms. What are the obligations of the rich to support needy families? Are there responsibilities of the poor to participate however they can in providing for their own transformation?

In Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, two main characters, Levin and Stiva, go hunting with the young fop, Vasenka, and as they encounter hard-working peasants, they start discussing the justice of economic inequality. Only foolish Vasenka can discuss the question disinterestedly, because it is, believe it or not, entirely new to him: “`Yes, why is it we spend our time riding, drinking, shooting doing nothing, while they are forever at work?’ said Vasenka, obviously for the first time in his life reflecting on the question, and consequently considering it with perfect sincerity.” Can it really be that an educated person has reached adulthood with this question never having occurred to him at all?

And yet, isn’t that the position economists find themselves in when they ignore fairness? When they treat tax reform, or any other issue, entirely in economic terms? Levin recognizes that there is something unfair about his wealth, but also recognizes that there is no obvious solution: it would do the peasants no good if he were to just give away his property. Should he make things more equal by making everyone worse off? On the contrary, his ability to make farmland more productive benefits the peasants, too. So, what, he asks, should be done?

Levin also knows that inequality is not only economic. If one experiences oneself as a lesser person because of social status, as many of the peasants do, that is itself a form of inequality entirely apart from wealth. In our society, we refer to participants in government as “taxpayers.” Does that then mean that to exempt large numbers of people from any taxation entirely demeans them – not least of all, in their own eyes?  There may be no effective economic difference between a very small tax and none at all, but it may make a tremendous psychological difference. Isn’t the failure to take the psychological effect of tax rates seriously as disturbingly innocent as Vasenka’s question about inequality?

Combining a humanistic and an economic approach might not give us specific answers, but it does make questions of fairness, including symbolic effects, part of the question. And in a democracy, where popular acceptance of the rules as legitimate is crucial, that would be a step forward.

Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities and professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University. His many books include Narrative and Freedom, “Anna Karenina” in Our Time, and The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture. Morton Schapiro is the president of Northwestern University and a professor of economics. His many books include The Student Aid Game. Morson and Schapiro are also the editors of The Fabulous Future?: America and the World in 2040 and the authors of Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities.

Bryan Wagner on a controversial folktale: The Tar Baby

WagnerPerhaps the best-known version of the tar baby story was published in 1880 by Joel Chandler Harris in Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, and popularized in Song of the South, the 1946 Disney movie. Other versions of the story, however, have surfaced in many other places throughout the world, including Nigeria, Brazil, Corsica, Jamaica, India, and the Philippines. The Tar Baby: A Global History by Bryan Wagner offers a fresh analysis of this deceptively simple story about a fox, a rabbit, and a doll made of tar and turpentine, tracing its history and its connections to slavery, colonialism, and global trade. Wagner explores how the tar baby story, thought to have originated in Africa, came to exist in hundreds of forms on five continents.

What is the tar baby story?

BW: There are hundreds of versions of the story, involving many characters and situations. It’s not possible to summarize the story in a way that can encompass all of its variants. The story does, however, follow a broad outline. I provide the following example in the book: “A rabbit and a wolf are neighbors. In the summer, the rabbit wastes his time singing songs, smoking cigarettes, and drinking wine, while the wolf stays busy working in his fields. The rabbit then steals from the wolf all winter. The next year, the wolf decides he will catch the rabbit by placing a tar baby, a lifelike figurine made from tar softened with turpentine, on the way to his fields. When the rabbit meets the tar baby in the road, and the tar baby does not reply to his greetings, the rabbit becomes angry and punches, kicks, and head-butts the tar baby until he is stuck at five points and left to the mercy of the wolf. The rabbit, however, is not trapped for long as he tricks the wolf into tossing him into the briar patch where he makes his escape.” In addition to this summary, I also provide an appendix with versions of the story transcribed in Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, the Cape Verde Islands, the Bahamas, Corsica, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines, and the United States. I also include a map of these stories representing when and where they were collected.

Why did you write a book about the tar baby story?

BW: The tar baby has some familiar associations. People think about the ways in which the term “tar baby” has been used as a racial slur. Or they think about it as a figure of speech referring to a situation that gets worse the harder you try to solve it. Or they think about the version of the story that was published by Joel Chandler Harris in Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1881). Or they think about the adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories in the Walt Disney movie Song of the South (1946). Most people don’t know that that the story of the tar baby was not invented by Harris. They don’t know that the story exists in hundreds of versions in the oral tradition that were collected on five continents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Scholars during these decades were fascinated by the story. They wanted to know how the story came to exist in all of these far-flung places. Some people, including Harris, thought the tar baby story was a key example of the cultural tradition that slaves brought with them from Africa to the Americas. Others believed that the tar baby originated not in Africa but in India or France. Still others believed it was invented by American Indians and borrowed by African Americans. The argument was fierce, and the stakes were high. Did culture belong to a race of people? Or did it cross over racial lines? Did culture construct or transcend racial identity? These questions have stayed with us even as they have been applied to a wide range of examples. It is important to recognize that the tar baby was one of the earliest and most important cases through which these questions were formulated.

The tar baby story is important to ideas about culture and race. Is it also important for politics?

BW: Yes that’s right. Increasingly over the twentieth century, scholars looked to trickster stories like the tar baby for evidence of how peasants and slaves reflected on the politics of everyday life.

Peasants and slaves told stories like the tar baby, it was argued, to share lessons about how to survive in a hostile world where the cards were stacked against you. These ideas were essential to intellectual movements like the new social history and certain strains of political anthropology. At the same time, other scholars have questioned this approach, arguing that it turns politics into the uninhibited pursuit of self-interest, failing to account for the importance of cooperation. I think that scholars have been right to bring these big questions about culture and politics to the story, but I also think that the answers they have discovered in the story have been insufficient. My book approaches the tar baby as a collective experiment in political philosophy. It argues that we need to understand the ways in which the story addresses universal problems—freedom and captivity, labor and value, crime and custom—if we are to gauge its powerful allure for the slaves, fugitives, emigrants, sailors, soldiers, and indentured workers who brought it all the way around the world.

What about the story’s longstanding association with racism? Is “tar baby” a racist term?

BW: That last one is a complex question, but the short answer is yes. Some people like William Safire and John McWhorter have argued that the racism associated with the term “tar baby” is a recent invention, and that the term’s original meaning is not about race. This is disproven by the fact that there are examples from the early nineteenth century where the term was already being used as a racial slur specifically directed at African American children. Harris published his first version of the tar baby story in the Atlanta Constitution at a time when the newspaper was using the term as a racial slur in its news articles. The term’s racism is not incidental to the story. This is also confirmed by the fact that illustrations from early versions of the story represent the tar baby as having phenotypically African facial features. In complex ways, the story is about the history of racism, and for this reason, I don’t think the term should be used in an offhand way as a figure of speech for an intractable situation. This usage is offensive not least for its willful ignorance of the long history of suffering and exploitation that the story attempts in its own way to comprehend.

Bryan Wagner is associate professor in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power after Slavery and Tar Baby: A Global History.

Hay Festival: A Literary Vacation

Hay Festival is an annual literature festival that takes place in Hay-on-Wye in Wales. In 2001, Bill Clinton described it as, “the Woodstock of the mind.” This year, Hay Festival takes place 25 May – 4 June, bringing writers and readers together to share stories and ideas in events that inspire, examine, and entertain. Here at PUP, we’re looking forward to seeing many of our highly celebrated authors participate in lectures and panel discussions. Get your tickets here.

Peter Singer
Ethics in the Real World
Saturday, 27 May 2017 2:30pm


Robbert Dijkgraaf
The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge
Saturday, 27 May 2017 5:30pm


Gilles Kepel
Terror in France
Sunday, 28 May 2017 1:00pm


Kevin Laland
Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony
Tuesday, 30 May 2017 2:30pm


Alexander Todorov
Face Value
Tuesday, 30 May 2017 4pm


Lawrence Bee
Britain’s Spiders
Wednesday, 31 May 2017 4pm


Roger Penrose
Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe
Thursday, 1 June 2017 5:30pm


Jack Zipes on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

The Sorcerer’s ApprenticeZipes by Jack Zipes enlightens and entertains with enduring, spellbinding tales of sorcery. The title might conjure up images of Mickey Mouse from the Disney film Fantasia, or of Harry Potter. But as this anthology reveals, “sorcerer’s apprentice” tales—in which a young person rebels against, or complies with, an authority who holds the keys to magical powers—have been told through the centuries, in many languages and cultures, from classical times to today. This unique and beautifully illustrated book brings together more than fifty sorcerer’s apprentice stories by a plethora of writers, including Ovid, Sir Walter Scott, and the Brothers Grimm. Zipes recently took the time to answer a few questions about his latest book.

What prompted you to collect all the different “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales?

JZ: We are still living in the Dark Ages, and consequently, five years ago, I wanted to shed some light on what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer have called the dialectic of the Enlightenment, and why reason has been obfuscated and overshadowed by superstition, religion, government, and corporate powers in so-called modern “enlightened” times. At one point in my research I came across various versions of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” that contradicted the popular Disney tale with which I was most familiar. These were stories in which the apprentice defeated a sordid, power-hungry sorcerer and which showed how knowledge could be used for emancipation and enlightenment. From that point on, I could not stop collecting similar tales that are included in the present anthology.

Why are these tales so significant?

JZ: The “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales are highly significant because they present magic primarily as a stable value of transformation that allows for self-consciousness and self-fashioning. These unusual tales counter the defamation of magic by religion, science, and the state, and raise the question of the master/slave dialectic that challenges elites and the status quo. In this regard, I have framed this anthology of “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales to represent the two major strains of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tradition and their historical development. It begins with tales of “The Humiliated Apprentice,” followed by “The Rebellious Apprentice” stories and Krabat tales. The majority of the tales stem from “The Rebellious Apprentice” tale type. This larger number, compared to the smaller amount of “The Humiliated Apprentice” tale type, is not due to my prejudices but simply to the fact that I did not find as many “Humiliated Apprentice” tales in my vast research as I did “Rebellious Apprentice” tales. The disparity speaks for itself, for the rebellion of apprentices of all kinds is a constant in all societies and in all ages.

What is at the basis of the conflict between the sorcerer and his apprentice?

JZ: Our knowledge of ourselves and the world is attained through experiencing “slavery” and knowing what being in slavery entails. This means that we are all involved in what the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in Phenomenology of Spirit, calls a dialectical bloody battle to death that underlies all types of “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales. In most of the oral tales and many of the literary tales about sorcerer’s apprentices, the narrative perspective is what I call the “slave’s perspective,” a voice and view from below, no matter who the collector, mediator, or publisher of the tale may have been. This view is what makes the tales so striking. Though it may be difficult to explore and explain how people, defined and treated as slaves, contributed to the formation of culture from below, it can be done. The renowned American folklorist Richard Dorson drew important historical connections in his collection Negro Folktales in Michigan in dealing with American master/slave tales told by African-Americans. The“Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales do not provide a solution to the master/slave conflict; they are not prescriptions or formulas for ending this conflict. What I have tried to demonstrate through collecting tales from various periods, and from different European, Asian, African, and American countries, is how these stories play out essential conflicts whose resolutions determine the nature of what it is to be human and humane.

Why do magic and magical transformation matter so much in people’s lives?

JZ: For a variety of reasons throughout the centuries, people have sought knowledge and power through magic. Tales about the desire for magic, which have evolved from words, fragments, and sentences, are not only wish-fulfillment tales but also blunt expressions of emotions that reveal what the people who tell, write, and listen to the tales lack, and what they want. Most people in the world believe in some kind of magic, whether religious or secular, and want to control “magic,” or “mana,” to escape enslavement and determine the path of their lives. According to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, all people are stamped by what he calls our habitus—the beliefs, values and customs that mark and shape our thoughts, values, and behavior from birth. To know ourselves and to free ourselves, Bourdieu writes, we must continually confront masters, who, if they do not learn from their slaves, will ultimately have to die in order for the slaves to gain release and freedom.

In what way did Walt Disney warp the tradition of the rebellious apprentice?

JZ: People tend to believe that the ideal, if not definitive, version of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is the Disney cinematic and literary tale produced as part of the film Fantasia in 1940. This is a misconception, and our unquestioning acceptance of the Disney version, which reinforces notions of humiliation, has ramifications for the abusive way we treat children. In fact, the transformation of the ancient “Humiliated Apprentice” tales into a “charming” children’s tale is one of the ways in which mass-mediated and commodified children’s literature ideologically warps if not perverts folklore to induct children into authoritarian civilizing processes. On the other hand, the oral traditions of anonymous storytelling that favor the “Rebellious Apprentice” tales oppose the oppression of commodified tales. Stories, storytellers, and writers look for the most fitting and artistic modality they can find to articulate views about life and the world. In the formation of what I call a memetic tradition of folk-tale types and fairy tales, there has always been a communal expression of themes that formed tales relevant to be remembered. Many of the themes are connected to beliefs in magic and magical transformation. Indeed, the pursuit of magic often underlies the patterns of folk and fairy tales. In this regard, the themes found in the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales are organically connected with the customs and beliefs of people who engendered them, and they form never-ending cultural traditions of resistance to the domination of magicians who misuse power. This unique collection of “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales sheds light on how young people have rebelled against the oppression and domination of magicians who use magic to control and exploit apprentices. The long history of the“Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales that date back to Greco-Roman times reflects how rebellion is key to understanding the relevance of the tales which expose the contradictions in the popularity of the Disney commodified version.

Jack Zipes is the editor and translator of The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. He is professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota. Natalie Frank is an American artist currently living and working in New York City. Her work is held in multiple museum collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum. They are the author and illustrator of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: An Anthology of Magical Tales.

When the Women Set Sail

In 1852, after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning urged her friend, art critic and memoirist Anna Jameson to read the novel, and expressed her indignation when Jameson found the subject of the novel too incendiary for a woman to tackle. Barrett Browning wrote in her letter to Jameson: “[I]s it possible that you think a woman has no business with questions like the question of slavery? Then she had better use a pen no more.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s assertion of her obligations as a female writer and poet is just one example of female writers’ active participation in the debates about the crucial concerns of civil society. Instead of concerning themselves solely with their domestic lives, women writers over the centuries have devoted themselves to aspiration, adventure, and public discourse. With stories about traveling, emigration, escape, and exodus, they have confronted ideas such as class formation, slavery, warfare, feminism, globalism, and the clash of cultures.

At Home in the World by Maria DiBattista and Deborah Epstein Nord is a reevaluation of the works of women writers, from canonical figures such as Jane Austen and George Eliot, to contemporary writers like Nadine Gordimer and Anita Desai. The authors argue that a complicated relationship and a recurring dialectic of home and abroad remain central in the literary expression of women’s experiences over two centuries. Searching for a “promised land” or a site of true belonging (the Home with a capital “H”), these women writers find the idea of Home in need of constant rediscovery and reinvention.

And rediscover they do. At the conclusion of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Anne Elliot takes a brave step to liberation by accepting a future life of possible distress and impending war. Anne ends in a “non-place,” her possible life on a ship will be a life with indefinite location; however, this might offer her a true Home alongside Captain Wentworth, which promises conjugal happiness and a loving companionship. In Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, Lucy Snowe leaves England abruptly and impulsively for the town of Villette, and starts a journey of adventure and dislocation. She increasingly comes to “mark her place”, not as wife or keeper of a household, but as traveler, writer, and teacher. She retreats from bourgeois domesticity and begins to envision a new model of Home: a place that enables a woman to live and thrive alone in the world. Stepping out of the private realm and a conventional home provides a space of possibility—a new incarnation of Home begins to take shape at the moment when the women set sail.

When explaining the title of their book, DiBattista and Nord write: “Our title is meant to conjure the image of those dauntless women writers who ventured across the threshold that leads from home into the public thoroughfares of thought and action where history is made, the world reformed and reimagined. The peripatetics whose work and tradition we chronicle in these pages are determinedly and inventively moving toward a promised land—for so many called it that—where they hope to feel, at last, at home in the great world” (11). However, the discovery of a true Home is always problematic or even impossible, for its discovery or search often takes the form of “creating, writing, recording, and reporting back—activities that never really find a terminus” (248).

Public engagement by women writers is an ongoing process. Through continued dissent and active involvement with the most pressing issues in public life, they continue to forge an artistic path home in the world.

You can read the introduction to At Home in the World: Women Writers and Public Life, From Austen to the Present, by Maria DiBattista and Deborah Epstein Nord here.

Mark Williams: A look at Irish gods and their legacy

WilliamsAgeless fairies inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal elves; W. B. Yeats invoked Irish divinities to reimagine the national condition. Why have Ireland’s mythical beings loomed so large in the world’s imagination? In Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth, Mark Williams weaves together the fascinating stories of some of Ireland’s famous gods and goddesses, from the heroic Lug to the fire goddess Brigit. He explores the religious history in the myths, showing how Ireland’s pagan divinities were transformed into literary characters in the medieval Christian era. Recently, Williams took the time to answer some questions about Irish gods and their stories.

Apparently Ireland has a pantheon of native gods?!

MW: Yes! — though in many ways they are unique, and don’t look all that much like the pantheons of other peoples and places. They’re called the Túatha Dé Danann in Irish, or ‘The Peoples of the Goddess Danu,’ as it’s usually translated. They tend to be imagined as immortal, beautiful aristocrats, sumptuously dressed and eternally young. In many stories from medieval Ireland, they live in a kind of parallel world, which can be accessed via the hills and Neolithic passage-graves which dot the Irish landscape. Some of them have vivid personalities: there’s the Morrígan, a battle-goddess who sometimes takes the form of a crow, for instance, or the young and heroic god Lug of the Long Arm. My favorite is Brigit, the goddess of poetry, medicine and blacksmithing who also moonlights as Ireland’s most important female saint — or at least has been thought to.

What is unusual about the Irish gods?

MW: Across Irish literature, in both Irish and English, their major characteristic is ontological ambiguity: the nature of their nature, so to speak, is never wholly fixed. In the first place, it’s hard to simply identify them as gods, as they have only an uncertain and wavering link to the actual deities worshiped by the pre-Christian Irish. Ireland’s conversion to Christianity saw the jettisoning of the vast majority of deities the Irish had once worshiped, while a small number were ‘reincarnated’ as medieval literary characters. This latter process was in no way inevitable, and the Anglo-Saxons did nothing of the sort, for example: you don’t find versions of Woden and Thunor turning up as literary characters in secular story, whereas the Irish constantly worked former gods into their sagas and tales, often worrying about how to place them in a Christian cosmos. Serious suggestions included the idea that they were merciful angels, ‘half-fallen’ angels, demons, or a race of humans who had somehow escaped the Fall and so retained more-than-human powers.

That the old gods were remembered at all was down to the deep respect for the past, which was characteristic of the medieval Irish. The Anglo-Saxons knew that they had arrived from somewhere else in the relatively recent past, but the Irish — around the conversion period, at least — seem to have thought themselves to be indigenous to their land. They were deeply invested in their own nativeness, so that their landscape, culture, and ancestry were all bound up together. (A new story was developed later which asserted that they hailed from Scythia, via Spain). But literature and shaping of a literate culture were in the hands of a clerical intelligentsia, who felt perfectly at liberty to make major changes in the depiction of ancient, once-divine figures. It is very striking how much the multi-talented god Lug (or Lugh) resembles the biblical King David, for example — both are young, handsome, royal figures, both are skilled musicians and poets, and both kill a giant with a slingshot to the head in single combat. Though there is no question that a god named Lug (or Lugus) was part of Irish paganism, one wonders how much of his ancient character actually persists in the literary Lug. This kind of remodeling might have happened to any number of the divine figures in Irish literature; far from representing the ignorant interference of clerics in ancient traditions, it actually reflects an attitude of deep respect on their part, and underscores their investment in the patterns and personages of their island’s ancient past.

The second peculiarity about the gods is that they are often depicted as ‘fairies’ — the not very satisfactory English term for the Irish áes síde, ‘the people of the hollow hills’. It is the second of these two Irish words which was later anglicised as Shee — a term familiar to all aficionados of nineteenth-century Irish literature. Rather than being gods, in this guise they act as humanity’s idealized twin-race. They are beautiful, immortal, and gifted with magic powers, and their lifestyle is largely characterized by graceful ease. In many ways they are the forerunner of Tolkien’s Elves, but they are less solemn and remote. In this guise they balloon in number: they become an imagined people, not a pantheon.

The third factor is that towards the end of the first millennium AD the Irish developed a complex backstory for their island, and a place for the Túatha Dé Danann was found within this elaborate timeline. They were now imagined as only one of a series of invading races who had ruled Ireland in the deep past. The climax of this kind of ‘synthetic history’ (as it is known) came in the late eleventh century, with the creation of ‘The Book of Invasions.’ In this schema, the gods were imagined as human beings who had simply learned how to supercharge their abilities with magical knowledge. They were (the synthetic history tells us) the third or fourth race to rule over Ireland, before they were in turn defeated by the incoming Gaels, the ethnic Irish. This scenario is transparently a creation of the high Middle Ages, but it became the basic imaginative frame for Ireland’s native gods until the nineteenth century.

The upshot of all these variations on the ontology of the Túatha Dé Danann was that it was actually quite difficult for antiquarian writers in modernity — as they combed through the records of the Irish past —to spot that these literary figures had once been Ireland’s native gods. Considerable preparation of the intellectual ground was necessary, and here the newly developed scholarly disciplines of anthropology, philology, and comparative mythology all played important roles. It wasn’t until the 1870s that the idea really took off, and soon it became a cultural and scholarly commonplace.

Why are the Irish gods less famous than the Graeco-Roman and Norse gods?

MW: The classical gods were the divinities of two cultures which were deeply admired by later ages, and were inseparable from the literature of those cultures; the gods of Greece and Rome therefore became part of the universal intellectual and imaginative patrimony of Europe. In the Middle Ages and on into the Early Modern era, Christian intellectuals felt perfectly at liberty to adopt them as symbols, personifications, allegories, and rhetorical tropes. (Dante calls on Apollo, for example, right at the heart of the greatest Christian poem of the Middle Ages). And later, with the Romantic movement, the impulse emerged to take the classical gods down from their niches in literary rhetoric and reclaim them as images of divine power in the natural world, even as living spiritual forces. So the gods of Greece and Rome have never actually been away, and have been naturalized for centuries in literature in English.

It’s worth noting, however, that the classical gods had no specifically national dimension, precisely because they were so universal. The Norse gods were quite different. Like the Irish gods, they were associated with a vernacular northern European language and had starring roles in a splendid medieval literature. In modernity, they could be claimed as the ‘native’ gods of those areas of Europe in which a Germanic language was spoken. This meant Germany, of course, but also — because of the Anglo-Saxon heritage — England, which gave the Norse gods a ready-made audience and a role as the ‘divine machinery’ in many forms of quasi-nationalist creative expression. The classic example is Wagner, whose monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen brought the Northern pantheon to international attention as a family of archetypal figures on a cosmic scale, explicitly paralleled to the gods of Greece. The Gaelic gods, in contrast, were associated only with Ireland and with the poorest and most remote parts of Scotland, and so seemed vague and outlandish in comparison.

Why did someone like W. B. Yeats take an interest?

MW: Yeats, and his friend the mystic George Russell, are really the essential figures in the late nineteenth century recovery of the Irish gods, though they had important precursors. Yeats was well-placed to take advantage of the new scholarship which had retrieved the Túatha Dé Danann as Ireland’s native pantheon. In his early-career siftings of material, he was able to boldly assert the fundamental identity of the fairies of folklore, the Túatha Dé Danann of the medieval literature, and the gods of the ancient Irish. Here the occult acted as a crucial unifying frame; Yeats was deeply invested in occultism as a system of thought, and he used it to give meaning and context to the Irish pantheon. To use anachronistic language, he came to believe, around the turn of the century, that the native gods were the archetypes of the national

unconscious, and that it might be possible to retrieve and reactivate them, creating a system of hermetic ‘images’ with which to reimagine the national condition. To this end he attempted to establish the so-called ‘Celtic Mysteries’ — a hermetic order on specifically national lines which would invoke and stir into life these figures from the depths of the national psyche, persuading them to intervene in a conflicted present. He certainly didn’t succeed in the way that he expected, but—more than a hundred years later—more people have heard of Lug, and Danu, and Brigit than ever before, and indeed the Irish gods are the focus of several forms of renewed and reimagined modern Paganism. So who knows? They are certainly alive now.

Is Ireland’s Immortals meant to be funny?

MW: In places, yes, I hope so; the material seemed to demand it, but in two different ways. On one level, the ferocious weirdness of some of the medieval tales can be laugh-out-loud funny in a way that must have been intentional on the part of the saga-authors. My colleague at Oxford, Heather O’Donoghue — who’s written a wonderful history of Norse mythology — has remarked that myth tends to be the most surreal manifestation of a given culture, and I’ve tried to bring this dimension of the literature out. I dwell, for example, on a scene in a ninth-century saga in which the Dagda, the Falstaffian ‘great father’ of the Irish gods — the rough equivalent of Zeus — takes a very long time to relieve his bowels, before being spanked by a woman he is trying to seduce.

On another level, some of the activities of those involved in the gods’ retrieval in modernity — especially in what might be called the late-Victorian New Age — can’t help but raise a smile in a more cynical era. To me it’s fascinating that a connection can be traced between major political movements that affected the fate of nations on the one hand, and the activities of a clique of irrationalizing intellectuals, fired up by some pretty way-out ideas, on the other. That aspect of things seemed to demand a certain respectful wryness, because the idea of ritually awakening the archetypes of the national unconscious is an astonishing and beautiful one, even if the actual execution could be a bit bonkers. The only such person whom I couldn’t write about respectfully — to start with — was William Sharp, the Scottish writer who posed as a Hebridean seeress he named ‘Fiona Macleod.’ He was a plus-fours wearing six-footer with a big, red face, but he wrote all his most successful ‘Celtic’ work in the guise of this wafty, Enya-like figure. He probably reminds me a bit too closely of my own naïve, teenage forays into things Celtic — all mist-shrouded dolmens and dangly druidical tat — and the act of self-exorcism led me to be unfair to Sharp. I was taken to task — quite rightly — for being too nasty by one of the referees of the book, and in revisions I hope I’ve been more even-handed.

Finally, I have to say that writing about Liam O’Flaherty’s 1930 story The Ecstasy of Angus — a steamy bit of erotica involving the hot-to-trot goddess Fand and the love-god Angus Óg — was an absolute hoot. As the couple get down to it, O’Flaherty actually brings on a chorus of fairies who prance about brandishing dildos. It was impossible to analyze with a straight face, though I hope I’ve made the case that the story does have a dark, politically serious dimension to it.

Why did you write the book, and what influenced it?

MW: I had various aims in mind. First, there was a gap in the scholarship: there was no up-to-date guide to the gods in medieval Irish literature, nor to their recuperation in the modern era. In the two parts of the book I’ve tried to tell both stories in a way that makes one dimension illuminate the other. I’d always wanted to do the project: my undergraduate training was in Classics and English, so I cut my intellectual teeth on reception history, meaning the afterlife and reworking of classical texts by later writers. So we would look, for example, at Milton’s reuse of Virgil and Homer, or at Shakespeare’s allusions to Ovid, or at the links between the end of the tradition of epic poetry and the genesis of the novel. One of the things this gave me was a predisposition to read culture in terms of wholeness and continuity, rather than fracture and disjointedness. But the relationship between Irish literature in English and medieval Irish literature is very different to that between later literature and that of Graeco-Roman antiquity. With the Irish material, ‘reception’ of this sort is problematic because everything is charged with the legacy of a contested and traumatic colonial history, so my impulse towards wholeness needed considerable modification. In 1981 Richard Jenkyns — later to be my Oxford tutor — wrote a splendid book called The Victorians and Ancient Greece, which I actually read at school, and that was a big influence: Part Two could have been subtitled ‘The Victorians and Ancient Ireland.’ Another big influence was the Norse expert Heather O’Donoghue, as — of course — were the works of Roy Foster: one of the greatest pleasures of the process was getting to know him. The biggest influence of all is Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol. I read his The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles when I was seventeen, and Part One of the book is in one sense a vast expansion of his chapter in that book on the Celts, ‘The People of the Mist.’ He has also written an elegant few pages about Yeats’s and Russell’s astral adventures in his book The Triumph of the Moon, and Part Two of Ireland’s Immortals handles the same material at book length.

One thing I hope for the book is that it might have the effect of freeing things up a bit for younger scholars in Celtic. Celtic Studies as an academic discipline emerged from various kinds of Romantic nationalism in the nineteenth century, and the legacy of that origin is only now really being assessed by scholars — we’re starting to get superb biographical studies of major figures, for example. But the most obvious consequence has been a massive counter-reaction in scholarship against anything woolly or mystical: Celtic Studies has evolved into a hard-headed and rather inward-looking discipline, focused on the production of critical editions and the analysis of the languages. Unfortunately, the field is currently undergoing a period of contraction: there are fewer places in the world where the languages are taught, and important Professorships—including that at my own institution—are under threat. I hope one thing the book might do is to say, look, as Celticists we can reach out, we can talk to colleagues in English and in intellectual history. People who work on Irish literature in English and those who work on literature in Irish hardly ever seem to talk to one another, with a few noble exceptions such as Declan Kiberd. I hope that one thing the book will do is to underline that there is genuine value in seeing the bigger picture from time to time. (That said — lest any colleagues reading this think me to be encouraging a hermeneutic free-for-all — I must say to any student Celticists out there: make sure you learn your paradigms.) But the literature — extraordinary, uncanny, and beautiful as it is — will languish in neglect until we get in the habit of claiming for ourselves significance and status.

Mark Williams teaches medieval Irish, Welsh and English literature at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, where he is the June Li Fellow in the Humanities and Tutor in English. He has also taught for Cambridge University’s Department of of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, & Celtic. Williams is the author of Fiery Shapes: Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales, 700–1700.

Thomas Laqueur awarded 2016 Cundill Prize in Historical Literature

LaqueurWarmest congratulations to Thomas W. Laqueur, acclaimed cultural historian and author of The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, for winning the 2016 Cundill Prize in Historical Literature at McGill University.

Laqueur, whose book offers a compelling and richly detailed account of how and why the living have cared for the dead since antiquity, received the high honor at a gala ceremony in Toronto last night. The Cundill Prize, now in its ninth year, is one of the most lucrative prizes in the field of historical literature. Shortlisted authors win $10,000 and the winner receives $75,000. The shortlist of three finalists was chosen on October 6th and include:

David Wootton- The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution (HarperCollins) 

Andrea Wulf- The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World (Alfred A. Knopf, John Murray Publishers)

This year’s short list was chosen by the Cundill jury, which included Timothy Brook, Republic of China Chair, University of British Columbia; John Darwin, Professor of Global and Imperial History and Director, Oxford Centre for Global History, University of Oxford; and Anna Porter, Co-founder, Key Porter Books and author (Buying a Better World: George Soros and Billionaire Philanthropy, The Ghosts of Europe).

Congratulations to Thomas Laqueur and all the finalists for this high honor.

Thomas Laqueur receives The Cundill Prize

Thomas Laqueur receives the 2016 Cundill Prize in Historical Literature at McGill University


Reiner Stach explores neglected period of Kafka’s life in crowning volume

The culmination of two decades of work, Reiner Stach’s three-part, masterful biography of Franz Kafka, one of the 20th century’s most fascinating and mysterious writers, is now complete. Kafka: The Early Years joins Kafka: The Decisive Years and Kafka: The Years of Insight, offering an unmatched account of how a boy who grew up in an old Central European monarchy helped create modern literature. The book makes use of previously untapped sources, including including family letters, schoolmates’ memoirs, and early diaries of Kafka’s close friend Max Brod.

High praise for the previous volumes from John Banville, New York Review of Books:

“This is one of the great literary biographies, to be set up there with, or perhaps placed on an even higher shelf than, Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, George Painter’s Marcel Proust, and Leon Edel’s Henry James. . . . [A]n eerily immediate portrait of one of literature’s most enduring and enigmatic masters.”

Check out the trailer for the complete three-volume biography here:

Reiner Stach worked extensively on the definitive edition of Kafka’s collected works before embarking on his three-volume biography of the writer. Shelley Frisch’s translations of those volumes were awarded the Modern Language Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize.

Tom Jones on Alexander Pope’s “original vision of humankind”

PopeHighly regarded as one of the most important and controversial works of the Enlightenment, Alexander Pope’s poem, “An Essay on Man” was a way to “vindicate the ways of God to man” in terms of the existence of evil, man’s place in the universe, and how humankind should behave in the world. Tom Jones has provided a comprehensive introduction in his accessible, reader-friendly new edition of the famous poem, An Essay on Man. Recently, Jones answered some questions about the poem, its reception, moral lessons, and distinctive contribution to ethical theory:

What does Pope say about ‘man’ in his essay?

TJ: (I’ll talk about ‘people’ in this interview, to avoid suggesting that the Essay on Man is about men rather than men and women.) Pope says some contrasting things about people in this poem, and one of the pleasures of reading it is working out how they do or don’t fit together. The poem is divided into four epistles, or letters, to Pope’s friend, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke. Each of the epistles considers man from a different perspective: as one link in a chain of creatures; as an individual; in society; with respect to what makes people happy. Each epistle has a different feel or dominant tone. The first emphasises that people can only know a part of what is going on in the universe. The second, that we are a confusion of antagonistic psychological principles. The third, that self-love and social instincts turn out to support one another very fully. And the fourth, that human happiness rests in learning that individual goods always tend to be goods for others too, and that we ought to widen our perspective to consider other people’s good. So the tone of the fourth epistle is really quite different from the first. Rather than being contradictory, however, I would suggest that the poem is partly a story, the story of how we get from knowing only a part and not the whole, to how we start to consider perspectives above and beyond our own – truly social and more truly human perspectives. The poem is an encouragement to adopt these higher social perspectives.

Why is this essay in verse?

TJ: The kind of moral lessons Pope was trying to make available were, he thought, best communicated and memorized when written in verse. The fact that fragments and couplets from this poem (and others by Pope) have achieved proverbial status (‘For Forms of Government let fools contest; / Whate’er is best administer’d is best’, III.303-4, is amongst the most famous from this poem) is good evidence for that claim. Pope also claimed he could be more concise in expressing these thoughts in rhymed verse. He probably meant that he could communicate exactly what he wanted to in exactly the right number of words, with the slightest possible chance of misinterpretation. But since Pope’s time we have tended also to value poetry not for saying just enough, but for saying too little or too much, and leaving us some work to do with what is missing or what is left over. As well as the memorable quality of its maxims, the poem also gives us this pleasure, as we work out that time frames have been compressed in a single sentence, or that a particularly knotty sentence refers back to an earlier subject, or that the implications of a metaphor or comparison are much more disturbing that we would have thought. The compression and economy Pope was aiming at for the sake of clarity can also produce revealing complexities.

Does Pope make a distinctive contribution to ethical theory or to philosophy more broadly?

TJ: Reason and the passions were often put in opposition to one another in the philosophy of the Renaissance and early Enlightenment. Pope was one of the writers who rehabilitated the passions, even saying that passions could become virtues if they had a tendency towards social goods (II.97-100). Pope also has a view that passions emerge over the course of time and tend to reinforce themselves in daily behavior, so he was a philosopher of custom who edges towards what we might anachronistically call a description of the formation of neural pathways (II.128ff). And, moving from the individual to the species, he had a view that social practices and virtues emerge over the course of human history (III.169ff). So in some ways he is an early instance of, even an inspiration to, philosophers of custom of the later Enlightenment – philosophers like David Hume.

That leads on to another question: Who read the poem and what were their reactions to it?

TJ: It’s hard to overstate how widely and enthusiastically this poem was read. Originally published anonymously, it was positively received for its philosophical and religious views. There were critical responses too, some of which accused Pope of denying free will and of identifying God as the soul of the material world. But the poem was widely echoed and imitated in English poetry, and philosophers with interests in politics, cosmology, metaphysics, social norms and many other topics picked up on phrases, images and arguments from the poem in their published work. I find it particularly interesting to trace the connections between Pope’s writing on the problem of limited human perception in a potentially limitless universe and Immanuel Kant’s work on cosmology and the sublime. Kant cited Pope’s poem in an early work, and his distinction between the mind’s limited capacity empirically to conceive of particular numbers, and its simultaneously existing purely rational capacity to conceive of the infinite may count Pope amongst its inspirations.

Who were Pope’s great inspirations?

TJ: Broadly, those philosophers and theologians who see that the world in front of them is sufficiently bad for the existence of a divine providence to require serious explanation, but who nonetheless believe that such explanations can be given. That’s a very diverse group, and some of the most tempting candidates include people we can’t be certain Pope had read – Plotinus and Leibniz, for example. Amongst the people we know Pope read there are philosophical poets like Lucretius, whose atomism and naturalism might have appealed to Pope, but whose assertion of the indifference or non-existence of the gods was unacceptable to most of Pope’s audience. There are also French essayists of different kinds, many of whom responded antagonistically to one another, such as Montaigne and Pascal. Pope is close to both these writers – to Montaigne on the narrow distinction between animal instinct and human reason, for example, and to Pascal on the pragmatic value of superficial social distinctions such as rank – but Pascal had reacted very strongly to Montaigne’s more moderate form of Christian skepticism: Pascal wanted to reassert the divine reason behind what could appear to be merely arbitrary custom. So like many great writers Pope draws on his predecessors and contemporaries for ideas and images, but his real work is in the imaginative transformation of those sources in the construction of an original vision of humankind, whose natural sociability emerges through a particular institutional history, whose reason and passions are sometimes collaborators in the production of distinctively human virtues, who recognize their limits but nonetheless always aim to broaden the scope of what is contained by them.

Tom Jones teaches English at the University of St. Andrews in St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland. He is the author of Poetic Language: Theory and Practice from the Renaissance to the Present and Pope and Berkeley: The Language of Poetry and Philosophy.

Iris Murdoch: A writer ahead of her time

Living on Paper Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch, co-edited by Avril Horner and Anne Rowe, is a close examination of Murdoch’s life and writing, completely composed of her own personal correspondence. With its rare insights into Murdoch’s emotional and intellectual life, Living on Paper is sparking interest in her work and history from a new generation of readers. Recently Horner and Rowe took the time to speak to the project’s importance.

What was the original inspiration for Living on Paper?

AH & AR: The Iris Murdoch Archive was inaugurated at Kingston University in 2004 and now holds over 3,000 letters written by Iris Murdoch, as well as photographs, notebooks, original manuscripts and two private libraries: these comprise a relatively small library from her London flat and a much larger library from her Oxford study that contains over 1,000 books of which over a hundred are heavily annotated. Over the past 12 years Anne has successfully submitted bids to various funding bodies in order to purchase important letter runs to Murdoch’s close friends, including writers, painters, students and lovers. Other letter runs were kindly donated by individuals who had corresponded with Murdoch and a number of additional runs were gifted by the families or friends of correspondents. The quality and interest of the letters were such that in 2010, we decided to select the most interesting of these for publication. In 2011 we were offered a book contract by Chatto & Windus in the UK and started serious work on the project. Of the 764 letters that comprise Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1995, over 500 are from Kingston’s Iris Murdoch Archive. The rest were sourced from other university archives – Oxford, Cambridge, Reading, Bristol, Leeds, Bradford and the LSE in England; the University of Iowa, Washington University, St. Louis, and Stanford University, California in the United States. (Avril was awarded funding by the Leverhulme Trust that enabled her to travel to most of these universities; others were kind enough send us photocopies of their holdings.) We thought it would take us two years to put the book together but we actually spent four years working on Living on Paper before it went to press.

Why was Murdoch such a prolific letter writer?

AH & AR: As John Sutherland pointed out in his review of Living on Paper in the New York Times Sunday Review of Books, Murdoch was brought up in a generation used to writing letters almost every day: ‘The habit was instilled at her boarding school, where letters home were an obligatory chore’. The habit never died and, in fact, she loved writing letters: ‘I can live in letters’ she wrote to her life-long friend, Philippa Foot in 1968. She would work on her novels and philosophical writings in the mornings and in the afternoon she would write letters, often spending up to four hours a day on them. Murdoch wrote all of them by hand using her favourite fountain pen. She answered every letter she received, responding even to complete strangers with great courtesy, and she would often reply immediately to friends or lovers who were currently in her thoughts. Like all writers, she was immensely curious about other people, and letters allowed her an intimacy with them and an imaginative entry into their thoughts and lives. It seems likely, despite the fact that she claimed never to use her own life or the lives of her friends in her novels, that she did draw on them for inspiration. She was careful though to transform imaginatively real people and situations so that they become unrecognisable in her art – at least most of the time.

How did you decide from a vast pool of resources which letters to include and which to leave out?

AH & AR: We read over 5,000 letters while working on the book and choosing which to include was a difficult task. We decided to focus on letter runs that, taken together, give what we hope is a full picture of a complicated personality, from Murdoch’s school days to her final years. Our aim was to present Murdoch’s life in her own words and to select interesting letters that shed light on both her emotional and her intellectual development. Our greatest regret is that we were unable to find any letters to John Bayley. When Murdoch and her husband moved from Steeple Aston to a much smaller house in Oxford in 1986, they burnt many letters and documents. We suspect that Murdoch’s letters to her husband were destroyed at this time. We also have only a few notes to Elias Canetti; there are thirty-one letters from Murdoch to Canetti in the Zentralbibliothek Zurich, but these are closed until 2024. There was no ideal solution to the problem of what to include and what to leave out – but we found ourselves remarkably like-minded in our choices, guided always by the desire to tell the truth about a remarkable life.

What do we learn about Iris Murdoch from her letters that we did not know before?

AH & AR: We have been very pleased by the number of reviewers who have remarked that Living on Paper has brought to light a fresh portrait of Murdoch. Many have commented on her ability to sustain long friendships, even with ex-lovers, and have noted her immense warmth and generosity, both emotional and financial. Others have been surprised by her vulnerability and her insecurities about her own abilities. Several have remarked on her obsessiveness (this obviously fed into her novels, many of which offer brilliant portraits of obsessive desire) and on her droll sense of humour – something not evident from previous biographical studies. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of her character that emerges from the letters is the way she perceived her own gender as fluid. In a fascinating letter to the mathematician Geroge Kreisel, written in 1967, she says, ‘I think I am sexually rather odd, which is a male homosexual in female guise. […] I doubt if Freud knew anything about me, though Proust knew about my male equivalent.’ She was not comfortable with any kind of gender labels, either lesbian, or homosexual or heterosexual: she did not feel that she fitted into any preordained category. This aspect of her character has greatly interested reviewers and will fascinate readers.

What letter run is your favorite or the most significant in giving an insight into Murdoch’s character/personality?

AH: I particularly like Murdoch’s letters to Raymond Queneau and to Brigid Brophy. Her correspondence with the French writer Raymond Queneau began shortly after she met him in Innsbruck in 1946 and lasted for thirty years. Through it we can track both her excitement about French literature and philosophy and the enormous intellectual influence Queneau had on her mind and work (Under the Net is dedicated to him and owes much to his novel Pierrot Mon Ami) as well as the sad tale of her unrequited love for him. Queneau, living in Paris and married with a son, was clearly fond of Murdoch and knew she had talent but resisted her overtures for him to become her lover. Over the years, Murdoch’s obsessive desire for Queneau transmuted into a dignified settling for his friendship but it is clear that she felt, for many years, that he was her true intellectual soul-mate.

Murdoch’s letters to Brigid Brophy, whom she met in 1954 are altogether different. Like Queneau, Brophy was an immensely gifted polymath but she was also a political activist (she frequently expressed her deep antipathy to the war in Vietnam), an outspoken advocate of bisexuality and a vegan when few people had heard of the word. Beautiful, provocative, witty, erratic and irreverent she greatly appealed to Murdoch and in some ways functioned as her alter ego. They quickly became close, enriching each other intellectually and exchanging ideas, often daily, on paper. (The Iris Murdoch Archive at Kingston holds over a 1,000 letters from Murdoch to Brophy.) Murdoch’s letters to Brophy are distinguished by their intensity of feeling, their intellectual acrobatics and their humour. The relationship was a stormy one, however, and Murdoch came to feel that she could never quite meet Brophy’s demands; nor did she wish to jeopardize her marriage to John Bayley. The intense liaison came to an end in 1967, when Brophy fell in love with Maureen Duffy, but Murdoch and Brophy kept in touch, on and off, until Brophy’s death from muscular sclerosis in 1995.

AR: For me, the letters to two students whom Murdoch befriended at the Royal College of Art between 1963 and 1967 are my favourite. David Morgan had a troubled adolescence that resulted in a spell in a home for maladjusted boys. Murdoch was fascinated by his unconventional background and stimulated by his views on art and obvious talent. She was attracted too by his good looks, and intrigued by his complicated love-life. Her sexually-charged and unwise relationship with him brought her perilously close to scandal. Yet she could not relinquish their friendship. Morgan was both enchanting and thrilling and she relished the danger he posed to himself and also to her. Morgan finds his way into the portrayal of dark, brooding ‘outsider’ characters and her fascination with him gives brilliance to the psychological realism that underpins them. These letters are electric in their intensity and have a compelling narrative – Murdoch is furious and fond in equal measure. Morgan came close to destroying Murdoch’s integrity as a wife, writer and public intellectual. Her letters to him, for me, provide the most compulsive reading in the book.

Rachel Fenner was assigned Murdoch as her supervisor and fell in love with her. Although making it clear that she could not reciprocate Rachel’s desire for intimacy, the two women became close. After seeking Murdoch’s advice, Rachel subsequently married but experiencing troubling emotional turmoil turned to Murdoch for support. Murdoch’s letters to her are among the most moving in the book and, unusually, Murdoch dispenses practical advice akin to her own moral philosophy: ‘Of course we are rather mechanical [. . .] but everything that is important and valuable and good belongs with the little piece of us that is not mechanical’. Murdoch condones their love here, despite the impossibility of fulfillment. But the relationship created turmoil in Fenner’s life and Murdoch’s letters illustrate that living by high moral standards was as difficult for her as the characters in her novels. With significant help and encouragement from Murdoch both Morgan and Fenner went on to highly successful careers, Morgan as a teacher and Fenner as a sculptor. Their love for their former teacher still endures.

How will Living on Paper change our reading of Murdoch’s novels and why might they attract a new generation of readers?

AH & AR: Even older readers who know Murdoch’s novels well might see them rather differently having read Living on Paper. For example, the sense of humour evident in many of her letters will alert the reader to the comical nature of many relationships and situations in her fiction. Murdoch’s interest in Mozart – previously undocumented and inspired by Brophy’s passion for the composer – we can now see reflected in the Mozartian dance of couples who interchange partners in such a way as to lend many of her novels a slightly comic and operatic air.

New and younger readers will undoubtedly be fascinated by Murdoch’s portrayal of sexuality. Recent research into sexual identities suggests that almost half of young people today are redefining sexuality in a surge of carefree “gender fluidity”. Murdoch’s views on sexual orientation and gender proclivity will not be in the least shocking to this younger generation, who will share them. This like-mindedness may mean that they will make very different interpretations of the tragedies at the heart of Murdoch’s novels as they are now able to consider them openly in terms of sexual repression and the social construction of gender. Whereas those who read Murdoch’s novels as they were published between the 1950s and the 1990s might have found her picture of humanity eccentric and far-fetched, many contemporary readers will find kindred spirits in her fiction. The propensity of Murdoch’s characters to have casual sexual liaisons with friends, the great speed with which they move in and out of sexual liaisons and the ambivalence about gender that mark her novels will no longer alienate twenty-first century readers who, instead, will see Iris Murdoch as a writer decades ahead of her time.

Avril Horner and Anne Rowe are the coeditors of Iris Murdoch: Texts and Contexts and Iris Murdoch and Morality. They most recently edited together Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch. Horner is professor emeritus of English literature at Kingston University in London, and has published widely on women’s writing and gothic fiction. Rowe is associate professor of English literature and director of the Iris Murdoch Archive Project at Kingston University. She is the lead editor of the Iris Murdoch Review, the author of The Visual Arts and Iris Murdoch, and the coauthor of Iris Murdoch: A Literary Life.