Monday, December 26, 2011

A "Natural History of the Book": Joshua Calhoun's "The Word Made Flax"

A few months ago my colleague Katy Scrogin passed along to me an article for the MLA Journal. I've been meaning to comment on it for some time now, as I found it thought-provoking and, at many points, exquisite.

Joshua Calhoun's "The Word Made Flax: Cheap Bibles, Textual Corruption, and the Poetics of Paper" [PMLA 126.2 (March 2011): 327-344] takes as its central concern the question of "a printed Bible made of culturally processed natural resources, a Bible that is a palimpsest of plants and animals, social circulation, religious tradition and textual production" [341]. Calhoun's thesis is that Bibles throughout the history of their production have carried in their physical forms the traces of the materials and conditions from which they were produced. Moreover, Calhoun finds clear evidence that readers through the ages have been quite adept at decoding these markings of material provenance, and using that knowledge as part of a rhetoric of interpretation.

To demonstrate his point, Calhoun offers a reading of a 1655 poem by Henry Vaughn, "The Book," which "engages in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century debates about cheap media and the production of a vernacular Bible in England" [329]. Take, for example, the following lines from the second stanza of "The Book":

[God] knew'st this papyr, when it was
Meer seed, and after that but grass;
Before 'twas drest or spun, and when
Made linen, who did wear it then:
What were their lifes, their thoughts & deeds
Whither good corn, or fruitless weeds [329].

"Like many seventeenth-century readers," Calhoun explains, Vaughn "still lives in close proximity to the materials that make his paper" [337]. Unlike the paper stocks of today, made primarily of wood pulp, the linen papers of Vaughn's day were made primarily of rags--that is to say, they consisted of well-worn, cast-off garments. "Vaughn, like his contemporaries, comprehended the natural origins of paper and understood that flax had to be literally inhabited--broken in as clothing--before it could be used in papermaking" [333].

Calhoun demonstrates that this close proximity to the life-cycle of paper made readers like Vaughn highly attuned not only to the provenance of books, but moreover to the relative qualities of paper employed in fashioning those books. In the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries Bibles (for demonstrably economic reasons) began to be printed on cheaper and cheaper grades of paper. Calhoun observes that "scholars have focused on the increased portability, distribution, and ownership of cheaper Bibles. What tend to be overlooked, at least in current criticism," he continues," are the rhetorical effects of the surfaces on which words appear" [328].

Drawing not only on his masterful reading of Vaughn, but also contemporaneous critics who despaired that the words of God were now to be found printed on thin papers far inferior to papers on which Shakespeare's plays were printed, Calhoun makes a well-supported claim that the rhetorical effect of printing cheaper Bibles was often to cheapen the reverence for the Bible itself. "[T]he Protestant Reformation made the Bible--and, by extension, other books--more vulgar" [328]. The Bible was now literally in the hands of the readers, graspable, and "graspability had interpretive consequences" [328].

"Examining the poetics of paper in Renaissance English texts, I assert the value of a critical approach that accounts for the rhetorical effects of what might be called a 'natural history of the book,'" Calhoun states. Upon reading his article, I was struck by the similarities that exist between his "natural history of the book," arising out of the disciplines of English literary criticism and bibliographic studies, and my own concerns of "material scripture," which arise out of the disciplines of theology and biblical criticism.

I recently contacted Joshua Calhoun, who is at present finishing his dissertation in English at the University of Delaware, Newark. He was very receptive to my description of what SCRIPT is up to, and I am pleased to report that he was quick to see the similarities in our methodologies, and very open to staying in contact and perhaps getting involved in some of the work we do at the conference level. We have made a first foray into cross-disciplinary conversation. I am hopeful that others who read this blog, and who are involved in the Iconic Books conversations and SCRIPT, will also begin to engage Calhoun's work (out of privacy and spam concerns, please get in touch with me directly for contact information). I have no doubt that he will be an excellent and valuable interlocutor as these conversations move forward.

1 comment:

Alex D said...
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