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Once Only Imagined

An Interview with Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi

Interview conducted by Kari Kraus, University of Rochester


The late David Erdman once called attention to S. Foster Damon's "eccentric and occasionally oracular" style—a statement of more than passing interest from a brilliant critic who in many ways could have been speaking of himself.[1] Blake scholars have long engaged in the sport of calling one another prophet or mystic, imputing the characteristics of their author to those who study him. Taunts of "oracle" and "occultist"—alternatingly maddening and clever, petty and spot-on, depending on the circumstances—lurk in Blake articles, monographs, reviews, notes, and conference papers.[2] The prophetic trope is more often than not delivered as a throwaway and read accordingly.

Two decades ago, in 1982, Studies in Romanticism published a special issue on Blake that turned the prophetic trope on its head. Conceived as a tribute to David Erdman, the issue included an interview with him and a round-table on the future of Blake studies edited by Morris Eaves.[3] Eaves not only found the soothsayers in his midst, but took things one step further by giving them an assignment. How he persuaded ten esteemed Blake scholars, all of presumably sound mind, to try on for size the mantle of prophecy I can't say, but the results make for startling reading, even—or especially—at this late date.[4] Regardless of whether or not individual predictions have made the transition from counterfactuals to factuals in the twenty years that have lapsed since their publication, the round robin gives a bracing look at how its contributors imagined the future landscape of Blake criticism. The time is ripe to assess their prophetic hits and misses, as well as reach out to the next generation of Blake scholars who will one day stand in the same relation to these pages as I do to their prototype.

Because 2002 marks not only the twentieth anniversary of that remarkable issue of SiR, but also the tenth anniversary of the conception of the electronic William Blake Archive [5], a project that for some has come to iconify the future of Blake studies, I asked its editors—Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi—if they'd be willing to do the mantic honors again, this time around as a threesome.[6] In the text of the interview that follows—conducted via email in January, February, and March of 2002—they've done just that, reprising their prophetic roles, and at my bidding reflecting on their own scholarship—past, present, and future. While topics of conversation run the gamut from the winsome (Blake kitsch) to the peculiar (hypothetical extensions of Blake's canon), such diversity is subordinate to recurrent themes that shape the momentum of the four-way exchange, particularly those of reproduction, materiality, and representation. Perhaps in the hands of this interviewer things couldn't have been otherwise. It is in this context that I have used the interview as an occasion to draw from Eaves, Essick, and Viscomi a view of the Blake Archive as they see it from the scaffolds and a sense of its place in the history of Blake reproductions and editing.

Because we live in an age when rapid technological obsolescence is a truism, the more technical questions and answers of the interview are likely to acquire a patina before their time. If today they hold the promise of new knowledge and research tools, tomorrow they will remind us that the future is always refracted through the eye of history, distorted by the force and limitations of a collective imagination. "What is now proved was once only imagined," Blake tells us (MHH 8, E 36),[7] on the face of it suggesting perfect agreement between conjectural and empirical truth, the one co-extensive with the other, although temporally disjoint. In this view, history plays the role of generative grammarian, transforming the subjunctive mood in which we cast our speculations about the future into the indicative mood of fact and experience. Yet it is a representation that fails to take into account the prima facie truth of prophecy, irrespective of its fulfillment in time. The high jinks of the fool's prophecies in King Lear or the incandescence of the conjectures of A. E. Housman or the loud proclamations of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in his Futurist manifesto are specimens of a genre whose merits are measured by criteria other than provability.

The kind of prophecy practiced by Eaves, Essick, and Viscomi in the discussion that follows takes the more elementary form of a "personal accounting" and a "directive for future acts." The quotation comes from Poems for the Millennium, whose editors, Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris,[8] are describing manifestos, not prophecies, but its aptness points to a kinship between the two genres deserving of further attention. In her anthology of manifestos, Mary Ann Caws notes that the manifesto "is always opposed to something, particular or general."[9] In 1982, that something for Eaves was the myth of a Blake industry, the idea of a central command center responsible for overseeing traffic in Blake criticism. Using his introduction to the chain prophecy as a bully pulpit from which to knock down some wrongheaded ideas about Blake scholarship, Eaves had his fun with the prevailing conspiracy theory of the day. While the present interview makes no attempt to update Eaves's send-up for the new millennium, it shares with its predecessor other manifesto-like qualities, particularly in the way it "positions itself between what has been done and what will be done, between the accomplished and the potential, in . . . an energizing division."[10] To borrow Eaves's words of twenty years ago, I hope the results make for interesting reading.[11]

A print version of this interview appears in a special issue of Studies in Romanticism on Blake (Summer 2002, volume 41). I wish to thank the journal's editor, David Wagenknecht, and the general editors of Romantic Circles—Neil Fraistat, Steven E. Jones, and Carl Stahmer—for facilitating this publication arrangement. I'd also like to thank Matthew Kirschenbaum for creating the title image for the electronic version. [KK]

Notes

1. Erdman's remark appears in a review of Damon's A Blake Dictionary in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology 65 (1966): "One expected a 'dictionary' prepared by a mind as independent and forceful as Professor Damon's to be eccentric and occasionally oracular and no mere mill of data with complicated references" (607).

2. The prophetic trope courses through the history of Blake criticism; let me limit myself to two examples that bookend the twentieth century: John Sampson's exasperation with the Ellis and Yeats edition of Blake led to a disdainful statement about the putative "occult powers" of its editors in the preface to his own 1905 edition (The Poetical Works of William Blake [Oxford: Clarendon P] xxviii). My second example, "cyber prophets," is chosen as much for its infelicity as its recent vintage. See Andrew Cooper and Michael Simpson, "The High-Tech Luddite of Lambeth: Blake's Eternal Hacking," The Wordsworth Circle 30 (1999): 130.

3. Morris Eaves, ed., Romantic Texts, Romantic Times: Homage to David Erdman, spec. issue of Studies in Romanticism 21 (1982). Carl Woodring edited the Coleridge portion of the issue.

4. The prophecies are collected in a subsection of the special issue: Inside the Blake Industry: Past, Present, and Future (389-443). Original participants included David Erdman, Robert N. Essick, Hazard Adams, Joseph Viscomi, W. J. T. Mitchell, Nelson Hilton, Morton D. Paley, Karl Kroeber, Robert Gleckner, and John E. Grant.

5. The William Blake Archive, ed. Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi, vers. 2.0, 1996-2002 <http://www.blakearchive.org>. For the genesis of the WBA, see Eaves, "Collaboration Takes More than E-mail: Behind the Scenes at the Blake Archive," The Journal of Electronic Publishing 3.2 (1997) <http://www.press.umich.edu/jep/03-02/blake.html>.

6. An equally interesting but more logistically challenging exercise would have been to reassemble as much of the original cast as possible for a sequel.

7. Unless otherwise noted, quotations of Blake's work are taken from David Erdman's standard one-volume edition: The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (Berkeley: U of California P, 1965; revised edition 1982), here and elsewhere referred to parenthetically as "E". The in-text "E" documentation makes use of standard abbreviations for Blake's works.

8. Poems for the Millennium, vol. 2, From Postwar to Millennium (Berkeley: U of California P, 1997) 405. Rothenberg and Joris are quoted in the introduction to Manifesto: A Century of Isms, ed. Mary Ann Caws (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2001) xxi.

9. Caws xxi.

10. Caws xxi.

11. 390. Hereafter quotations from Inside the Blake Industry will be referenced parenthetically in the text.

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Published @ RC

March 2003