Monday, March 19, 2012

Charles Dickens should have been in the title of this piece on Simon Morley

Monday, December 26, 2011 reposted 19 March 2012
Simon Morley's review of THE POWELL PAPERS in TLS 11 November 2011
My luck with the London TLS has been pretty erratic. They gave FLAWED TEXTS AND VERBAL ICONS to a Scottish versifier who had no idea at all what it was about. Then in 1997 there was ecstatic praise of the first volume of the biography by a man who had stolen the Hayford-Parker textual lists from our Norton MOBY-DICK years before. The 1997 review was for sale in all the book stores and news stands in London while we were there working in the British Library at Colindale, so it made for good ID. Later reviews have been pretty perfunctory. TLS gave THE POWELL PAPERS to a grad student, Simon Morley, who did not take time to read it, as his errors show. He was a Gloomy Gus who had absolutely no sense of fun. A reader of his review would gain no sense of its structure and never guess that the book contains much new material on topics such as Powell’s precipitating an American national re-evaluation of Dickens and pushing Herman Melville toward defining himself against Washington Irving. In one chapter, newly discovered documents show just how mercilessly, in the lack of international copyright, the Harpers exalted their cheap serialized Dickens while arguing that American writers like Melville must be sacrificed for the “public good.” The reader of the review would not guess that four pages of the book are devoted to a small comic masterpiece, Thomas Butler Gunn’s satire of Powell in his 1873 Paul Gower, the existence of which I discovered in 2008. There “Mr. Bowles” (a scatological pun Robert Browning also employed) is “an Englishman of whom there existed a curious tradition in the ranks of New York journalism: namely, that he had involuntarily set to Mr. Dickens for the portrait of Wilkins Micawber, or rather supplied the raw material for that immortal character.”

I had hoped reviewers would be entranced by the informative rogues’ gallery of an Index which features such figures as Augustus W. Clason, Jr., who beat the Scottish-born editor of the Herald with a dog whip; Valorous P. Coolidge, the Waterville, Maine, physician who murdered young Edward Mathews then took pay for performing the autopsy on him; David Russell Lee, the diminutive, febrile English-born reporter on theatre and law; and John Andrew Jackson Neafie, the carpenter turned actor who played Othello and toured with Forrest. Had he read this highly enjoyable Index, Morley, instead of referring to “the American novelist Thomas Gunn,” might have identified Thomas Butler Gunn rightly as belonging to the bustling cadre of British-born journalists and artists who flourished in late 19th-century Manhattan. Despite Morley’s gloomy report, I would like to recommend the sparkling Index and the rest of The Powell Papers as a tonic for the dark winter to come as well as an early contribution to the celebration of Dickens’s bicentennial?

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