Abstract: Persephone Books

Persephone Books, founded in 1999 by Nicola Beauman, publishes and sells “neglected” twentieth-century women writers, positioning itself as neither too literary nor too commercial. It also has a more ambivalent relationship to feminism than its larger counterpart, Virago Press, which declined to publish some of the authors mentioned in Beauman’s 1983 monograph, A Very Great Profession. Urmila Seshagiri argues that Persephone makes modernism more accessible to a general readership; I suspect that its marketing also aims to re-direct tastes of already educated women (especially). I will examine commercial and archival materials on Persephone’s website, videos, news articles, and Beauman’s book.

Non-readers (Computers and Reviewers)

Ted Underwood’s machine learning algorithm predicts the probability that a given work is part of the set of works reviewed in a group of prestigious publications. In the case of poetry from 1820 – 1899, the prediction is almost 80% accurate. (This requires that probabilities be collapsed into the categories of more likely to be reviewed than not, and vice versa.)

In its training phase, the algorithm does something a human could never do: it identifies groups of words whose presences/absences are most likely to sort the work into the correct category: reviewed or unreviewed (an approximation of prestigious or not-prestigious). Computers are good at counting; humans are not. Even though what the computer does is extremely different from human reading, some differences between the prestigious words and the non-prestigious words are actually recognizable to humans. As Underwood puts it, “All of this boils down to a fairly clear contrast between embodied lyric subjectivity and an older mode of poetic authority that is more didactic, sentimental, and collective” (84). Of course, Underwood chooses the most representative passages for his article. Contrasts in diction might not be clear to modern readers–or past reviewers–across the whole dataset. We also have no idea what went on in the minds of reviewers.

That said, the predictive value of diction might bolster the idea, put forth by Arnold Bennett, that to the reviewer, “The narrative everywhere discloses … the merits and defects of the writer; no author ever lived who could write a page without giving himself away” (97). Diction is apparent even from small samples. So if reviewers were compelled to only sample a work before determining whether it might be reviewed or not, diction might have been a useful feature to register (whether consciously or not). According to Bennett, the title page is also extremely useful to the reviewer, but Underwood strips this kind of material from his texts. I wonder if a model could be trained on the smaller data set of paratexts. Would it be too difficult to encode aesthetic and material features?

The Language of Wine

Primed by several mentions of red wine in Banjo’s opening pages, I noticed the following description of a bar in Marseilles’ Ditch:

Senegalese, Sudanese, Somali, Nigerians, West Indians, Americans, blacks from everywhere, crowded together, talking strange dialects, but, brought together, understanding one another by the language of wine. (36)

Here, inebriation produces a language of shared expressions and attitudes, though Banjo, “never sober, even when he was not drinking,” doesn’t need the wine (13). Perhaps intoxication is also a language of brotherly love: later in the chapter, Banjo and Malty start fighting over Latnah but collapse, drunk, “in a helpless embrace” (37).

Rather than being wholly “soaked in red alcohol” (Léro qtd. In Edwards 187), McKay’s novel drops the idea of wine as common tongue and focuses more on misunderstanding and mistranslation. For example, Sister Geter mistakenly believes God’s word will be universally understood (290). Thus, the early vignette about wine starts to look more and more like a “platitude” (Edwards 95).

Returning to the passage, I wonder why “the red wine of France” to which the vagabonds “took…like ducks to water” momentarily becomes their universal language (23). Larbaud says that the French see their culture as universal: would this moment stroke French egos?

I’ll speculate that wine (as French commercial production), not music (as Black cultural production), figures as a common language in this passage because some supposedly common language cannot substitute the real value of “strange dialects,” of difference. One could also say that McKay estranges them from his novel in not directly representing them.

At the end of Banjo, McKay has Ray (somewhat his analogue) reflect that he “always felt humble when he heard the Senegalese and other West African tribes speaking their own languages with native warmth and feeling” (320). Does the absence of these languages’ representation (a subset of the “strange dialects”) change the nature of such praise? What might have shaped McKay’s linguistic decisions–including but not limited to his position as a Jamaican-American? I’m hoping that these questions may invite discussion of his inventive use of English and French from a different angle.

“complete as written”; or, dirty parts and all

Andrew promised us a secondary reading that was uninterested in opening Joyce’s novel. Being a bit contrary, I read Rainey’s account for gestures towards textual content and places where considering textual content would open up further questions.

Rainey includes the prospectus for the “genuine deluxe edition” of Ulysses (50). Though this edition was about more than sidestepping obscenity laws, the prospectus nonetheless reads, “ULYSSES suppressed four times during serial publication in “The Little Review” will be published by “SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY” complete as written” (53). I wonder, following Rainey’s own close reading of other press items: for whom is this proclamation of triumph over puritanical suppression? If this edition was (primarily) marketed to dealers and speculators who had little interest in opening the book, then why such rhetoric? Does it suggest that sensational media coverage bolsters economic appreciation? Is public interest or hype (without purchasing power) relevant to appreciation? (Here, you can see, I’m a newcomer to investing.)

I wonder if thinking about other responses to the “obscenity” in Joyce’s text–not just the legal attention to sexual content but the critical revulsion from sexual and scatological content–changes our understanding of this ~triumph over “suppression”~ narrative? Does the prospectus also implicitly rebuke prudish Virginias, suggesting that consummate art transfigures dirt into gold?

The prospectus, naturally, notes that the deluxe edition is “complete as written,” not a word expunged. Though for Rainey, reading became “superfluous” in a milieu of collecting and investing, paradoxically, the fidelity of Joyce’s text seems to become part of its value as object d’art (74). To be fair, the fidelity fetish associated with later Ulysses editions (salivating over the near “ideal text” of the Gabler edition, say) seems only nascent at this time. Perhaps it comes more from Joyce’s own attention to textual corrections. Anyway, I’d be curious to know how else y’all see relationships between what’s IN Ulysses and how it’s valued as an object. And someone who used a reference book while reading (not I!): what do you think such paratext says about the literary field that distributes, reads, and makes meaning out of the novel?