Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, October 2, 2009

how to run a literary estate

For the past couple of years I have been working on the most challenging — and maybe the most fascinating — project of my scholarly life: a critical edition of W. H. Auden’s immensely difficult long poem The Age of Anxiety. A few years ago Princeton University Press published Arthur Kirsch’s critical edition of the same poet’s The Sea and the Mirror, and that book did pretty well; thus my assignment. The gifted and resourceful Nick Jenkins is also working on an edition, in the same series, of The Double Man.

All of us have had the great pleasure of working with The Literary Executor Than Whom No Greater Can Be Conceived, Edward Mendelson. Edward was just in his mid-twenties when Auden asked him to oversee his literary estate, and has been hard at it ever since. In addition to his own brilliant critical work on Auden — Early Auden and Later Auden are the major texts — he has been for many years editing the poet’s complete works. (I’ve written often about these labors of Edward’s: see, for example, here and here.)

And in the midst of all that Edward has been immensely — staggeringly — helpful to others of us working in the same vineyard. Here’s just one instance among many: a couple of months ago I sent him a complete draft of my Age of Anxiety edition, and after reading it he thought there might be some significant background material I had overlooked. So he went to the magnificent Berg Collection of the New York Public Library — which holds vast tracts of Auden material — and spent all day looking for documents that would make my edition better. Sure enough, I had overlooked some valuable documents, so I’ll be visiting the Berg soon to incorporate their content into my edition’s notes. But I never even would have known what I was missing had it not been for Edward’s acute eye, excellent memory, and — above all — his willingness to take time away from his own work to make my work better.

When I think what my scholarly life would have been like if I had had Stephen Joyce or Valerie Eliot to deal with, I shudder. But instead I have been blessed and honored to work with Edward Mendelson. Thanks, Edward!

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